Joshua Lakin


Q&A with Joshua Lakin, MD

April 24th, 2020

Joshua Lakin is an Adult Palliative Care physician in the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. He is also an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School, Associate Faculty at Ariadne Labs, and Course Faculty for Palliative Care Education and Practice

Tell us about your background.

While I was born in Iowa, I really grew up in a college town in Oregon and growing up for me meant being outdoors. I lived on the edge of the college’s research forest framed by ponds and a small stream and I spent every minute I could when I was young stalking around the woods looking for snakes, turtles, bugs, and frogs and whatever else I could find to keep from having to be in the house. I was perpetually covered in scratches from blackberry bushes and poison oak and loved every minute of my chances to go out and gather more. As I got older and had to find ways to fit into the worlds of middle and high school, this evolved into a love of fishing, hiking, backpacking… anything acceptable to get me outdoors.  I still spend as much of my free time doing those things as I can.

I found my way to my career in palliative care through a number of different careers.  I studied business economics and physics in college at a small liberal arts school in Oregon and my first job was as a financial analyst for a high-tech company in Portland. I moved from the high-tech field to healthcare and held various consulting jobs before going to medical school at Brown University in Rhode Island. I really enjoyed the diverse practice of internal medicine in medical school and was fortunate to do my residency at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and it was caring for patients as a medicine resident that I first heard of and found palliative care. I joined the specialty, completing my fellowship at UCSF as well, for the opportunities in both the clinical work we do and the work we face to expand our field. I find that I get to apply my business, finance, and consulting backgrounds as well in our work to drive systematic growth of palliative care interventions. My role here at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s hospital allows me the opportunity to do the clinical, education, and academic work that inspires me, working to help improve access to the tools palliative care employs to give patients voice and some measure of control at some of the most challenging times of their lives.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

That’s easy – the people.  Palliative care draws a wide range of passionate people and they inspire me in so many ways.  They inspire me to be better, to be more kind, to laugh at myself, to live fully when times are good and when times are hard. I am so grateful for this as I know it is something that not everyone gets to experience.  In addition, the work we get to do together, while certainly challenging, is inherently rewarding for me.

What is the most helpful advice that you have received?

From my mom, and from her it was from our pastor at our Presbyterian church growing up and from him I can’t remember where (though I am sure the web will know):  “Life is short and we have too little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us.  So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”  I’ve deeply loved this advice for decades and try to hold it as a north for living. Working in palliative care reminds me of this message daily.

What authors or books have influenced you most?

I find spiritual meaning and grounding searching for wonder and for me, not surprisingly, I look for it in our natural world on all scales. I find the search and feelings best described by a writer named David James Duncan.  Books such as The River Why help capture much of what I feel but never really know how to express and he does it wonderfully and with humor.

If you were stuck on a deserted island, what music, movies or other entertainment would you bring?

A big pile of fantasy novels so I could escape from reality when I needed to!  For example, the Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss; I could read that book over and over.  I am now buried in the Dark Tower series by Stephen King…who knew he did a fantasy/western run of immense creativity?  I didn’t until a friend from Alaska put me onto them while fishing last year.

Learn more about Dr. Lakin