Almost a year ago, when she suddenly found herself with one foot on each side of the physician-cancer patient divide, Dr. Jane Weeks began fielding questions from reporters about the most significant work of her career.
She had led a team of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute researchers who found that most patients with advanced lung and colorectal cancer incorrectly thought chemotherapy could cure them, a misperception that hampered their ability to make informed end-of-life decisions that would ultimately affect them physically, emotionally, and financially.
“The issue here isn’t really over optimism, but instead thinking that a treatment offers a chance of cure, when in fact it doesn’t,” Dr. Weeks wrote in an e-mail to the Globe last October as she herself was undergoing treatment and facing the same kinds of choices and decisions she had studied in her role as program leader for outcomes research at Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.
Through wide-ranging research, Dr. Weeks “truly moved the field,” said Dr. Deb Schrag, who worked with her on the study, which was published last fall in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Some people move the field by discovering something. What Jane did was more subtle, but no less profound. She changed the way people think and the way people ask questions about how we investigate and evaluate cancer treatment.”
Dr. Weeks, who was director of the McGraw/Patterson Center for Population Sciences at Dana-Farber, and also taught at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, died of cancer on Sept. 10 in her Boston home. She was 61.
Through her own work helping create and define the field of outcomes research in oncology, and the efforts of physicians she trained and nurtured, Dr. Weeks left a legacy that will continue to unfold in the years ahead, colleagues said. All that might not have happened if she hadn’t seen the movie “The Paper Chase” decades ago.
Upon graduating from Harvard, she was accepted at Harvard Law School, and then deferred after seeing the movie, which paints an unflattering portrait of a law student’s challenging life. Soon after detouring into health policy research, she decided to go to Harvard Medical School instead.
As a physician who had been a philosophy major and would-be law student, she possessed an intellect that was at once inspiring and intimidating, even within the Harvard community.
“One of the remarkable things about Jane is how many people described her as the smartest person they’d met,” said Dr. Edward J. Benz Jr., president of Dana-Farber, who added that she was at “the center of the intellectual vibrancy” of the institute.
“I think one of the hard things was that Jane was so smart that she had to wait for people to catch up with her,” said Schrag, a health services researcher and medical oncologist who was one of many protégés Dr. Weeks mentored at Dana-Farber.
Earlier this year, Dr. Weeks received the William Silen Lifetime Achievement in Mentoring Award from Harvard Medical School and the Casty Award for exceptional mentoring at Dana-Farber. She took the $10,000 that came with the Casty Award and helped create a fund, in her name, to support research by junior faculty and trainees.
“You don’t get to be such a great mentor and win all those mentorship awards without having Olympic-class empathy,” said her husband, Dr. Barrett Rollins, who is chief scientific officer and faculty dean for academic affairs at Dana-Farber.
Benz noted that “in addition to being acknowledged for her brilliance, she was equally revered for being just an extraordinary mentor,” and added that “above and beyond Jane’s individual area of excellence, she was truly an architect of the stature and greatness of Dana-Farber.”
Jane Carrie Weeks was born in Ann Arbor, Mich., the second of three siblings whose father was an English professor at the University of Michigan and whose mother raised the children.
“She had this deep and abiding feeling that there was something great about being a Midwesterner,” her husband said.
The two met and immediately became a couple 30 years ago, bonding initially over their shared Midwestern backgrounds, medical careers, and musical tastes. Tape after tape of the Beatles, and later CD after CD, serenaded their vacation drives.
Despite her affection for Midwestern sensibility, Dr. Weeks found the abrasiveness of an East Coast metropolitan area exhilarating, though she almost didn’t make it here, and only mailed her Harvard application on time because of her father’s cajoling. “Jane had a really hard time with deadlines,” Rollins said with a chuckle. “The stories go all the way back to elementary school, junior high, high school.”
She graduated from Harvard in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, and from Harvard Medical School in 1984. She also received a master’s in health policy and management in 1991 from the Harvard School of Public Health.
Along with helping shape the discipline of cancer outcomes research, Dr. Weeks was a pioneer in comparative effectiveness research, which Dana-Farber described as addressing “the reality that many decisions about cancer treatment must be made with imperfect evidence.” She founded the institute’s Center for Outcomes and Policy Research in 1995, and over the course of her career published more than 200 papers on topics including cost-effectiveness of health services, racial disparities in health care, and patient preferences about end-of-life care.
The study she published last fall found that 69 percent of those with advanced lung cancer, and 81 percent with advanced colorectal cancer, didn’t grasp that chemotherapy would probably not cure them. Dr. Weeks did not share those illusions when she was diagnosed with cancer.
“She was very conscious that she was dying of an incurable disease and yet she was hardly resigned,” her husband said. “For a whole year she kept saying, ‘I’m not ready to go yet, I have too much to do.’”
Still, the outcomes research she conducted informed her own choices as she contemplated different treatments and reflected on her academic findings, which had become intensely personal. “At almost every turn,” Rollins added, “what she said was: ‘I was right.’’’
In addition to her husband, Dr. Weeks leaves her mother, Frances, of Ann Arbor; a brother, Tom of Bexley, Ohio; and a sister, Sarah of Nyack, N.Y.
A memorial service will be held at 5 p.m. Oct. 23 at Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.
At 6 feet tall, Dr. Weeks stood out in any crowd and spent considerable time “trying to find flat-heeled shoes that looked good,” her husband said. “I have this picture of her with Katie Couric and they look like different species.”
With an intellect just as towering, Dr. Weeks “had a nose for where interesting and important questions were,” Schrag said, and was a mentor to an unusually wide range of students, including medical oncologists, surgeons, doctoral students in research, and behavioral scientists.
Students savored their time with Dr. Weeks, Schrag said, and not just because of her invigorating praise and sobering critiques.
“Doing research is hard,” Schrag said. “She actually made hard work fun, and I think that was her special sauce. It was just fun to work with Jane.”