Wendy R. Brewster, MD, PhD, a compassionate clinician-scientist who focused her career on caring for women with gynecologic cancer and studying at-risk populations and the disparate mechanisms leading to poor outcomes in endometrial, ovarian and cervical cancers, died of pancreatic cancer on July 24. She passed surrounded and supported by her family in Houston, where her sister lived.
The beloved member of UNC School of Medicine Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center held many prestigious academic and professional titles, but it’s quite possible she was most proud of being known as a cherished colleague and mentor.
“Wendy was an incredibly talented clinician, and a keenly insightful researcher. She was unwavering in her commitment to eliminating disparities and inequities on all fronts, especially as it related to the delivery of health care,” said Shelley Earp, MD, director of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Her desire to make a difference on all levels endeared her to patients and their families, as well as being a true friend and source of strength for her cancer center colleagues.”
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom, and raised in Guyana, Brewster said she knew by the age of six that she would study and practice medicine.
Brewster earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Rutgers University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and her medical degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. She completed her residency training in obstetrics and gynecology at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and a fellowship in gynecologic oncology and her PhD in epidemiology at the University of California, Irvine, where she was subsequently appointed to the faculty.
In 2008, she was recruited to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to direct the Center for Women’s Health Research and to join the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology and the Cancer Center.
Asked early in her career why she chose to specialize in gynecologic oncology – she had considered becoming a surgeon – Brewster said she wanted the opportunity to care for patients, whom she fondly called “her ladies,” through their full course of care.
“Being able to know and work with someone like Wendy, who consistently exuded positivity, hope, and kindness, has truly been a blessing. On many occasions I had the privilege of witnessing firsthand her deep generosity and innate ability to uplift and enrich the lives of those around her. Wendy was an exceptional role model and an extraordinary person, finding true joy in mentoring and training the next generation of gynecology oncologists committed to eliminating healthcare disparities through clinical care and research,” said Genevieve Neal-Perry, MD, PhD, Robert A. Ross Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UNC School of Medicine.
“Wendy loved this department, and she was equally loved back. Her smiling face and generous soul will be greatly missed not only by me but also by the countless others in the department whose lives she touched,” Neal-Perry said. “It is my sincere hope that her memory will serve as a wellspring of strength and comfort for each one of us as we navigate this challenging time.”
In addition to being a compassionate and caring physician, Brewster is remembered for her warm and vivacious approach to living life to the fullest.
“Wendy distinguished herself as a dedicated clinician, passionate researcher, and relentless advocate for patients. She was deeply committed to improving health equity for patients with gynecologic cancers and fostering an inclusive practice in which to serve patients,” said John Boggess, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and co-director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology at UNC School of Medicine. “We have lost a partner, a confidant, and an inspired source of learning, but most importantly a friend. We are all comforted by the fact that Wendy is at peace. As a gift, she entrusted many of us with her cherished orchid collection. Mine are already blooming.”
While caring for her patients and their families, as well as her trainees and colleagues, was her raison d’être, Brewster was equally committed to furthering the field of gynecologic oncology. She was proud to be a member of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology. She was president-elect of the organization – her term was to start in 2024 – and she had served as secretary-treasurer, deputy editor of its journal Gynecologic Oncology, and program co-chair of its 2019 annual meeting. She generously championed the organization’s career development initiatives. Earlier this year, she endowed a fund to support early career investigators demonstrating a commitment to improving endometrial and cervical cancer outcomes. In honor of this gift and to celebrate her legacy, the SGO established the Wendy R. Brewster, MD, PhD, Young Investigator Award, which will be presented annually at the opening session of its annual meeting.
Brewster was also passionate about identifying and eliminating health care inequities.
From the start of her career, she investigated the populations at risk for disparate treatment and poor outcomes in cervical, colon, endometrial, and ovarian cancers. One of the studies she led, which examined how the standard of medical care impacts outcomes of high-risk cervical patients, demonstrated that providing single-visit treatments produced better, more effective outcomes. More recently, she was collaborating on studies examining the relationship between distance and access to care for rural and urban cervical cancer patients, which is a significant issue in North Carolina.
Prior to her passing, UNC Lineberger established the Wendy R. Brewster Distinguished Lectureship in Cancer Health Equity to honor her legacy and to encourage others to continue and expand on her work. The lectureship will feature an annual talk on cancer health equity by a distinguished scholar, who will also meet with UNC faculty, staff, students, and trainees.
Brewster also dedicated herself to building a workplace and a cancer program that was diverse and inclusive and achieved excellence in care and outcomes for everyone. She served on the cancer center’s senior administration as the associate director of diversity, equity and inclusion, and she was co-chair of the UNC Lineberger’s Equity Council. Principled and pragmatic, Brewster deftly led efforts that challenged systems, policies and practices that were barriers to meaningful change, especially efforts to create a workforce that was representative of the state’s population and to develop a more inclusive culture.
“Wendy was always sensitive to the needs of patients, colleagues, friends and staff. She was always available, supportive and deeply insightful,” said Samuel Cykert, MD, professor of medicine, who served with Brewster as co-chair the UNC Lineberger Equity Council. “In my 20 plus years of working on issues involving equity and inclusion, I never knew a better colleague or friend. She understood the urgency of the work and communicated this to the desired effect in every setting and circumstance.”
Brewster is survived by her sister and brother, Abenaa Brewster, MD, MHS, and Rod Brewster, their families, and members of her extended family, as well as her colleagues at UNC and nationally, whom she treated like family.
In honor of Brewster’s wishes, no service will be held. Instead, she asked that people perform an act of kindness that makes a difference in someone’s life.
Those interested in supporting the Wendy R. Brewster Distinguished Lectureship in Cancer Health Equity at UNC Lineberger may donate online to the Wendy Brewster, MD, PhD, Distinguished Lectureship Fund.
Remembering Wendy Brewster, MD, PhD
You are invited to share your thoughts and reflections about her using this form. Please know that your name and comment will be published here (below) and public for others to see. Comments will be collected and published to this page.
I am very sad to learn of Dr Brewster’s passing. In 2022 my mother was diagnosed with an ovarian mass and we came into Dr Brewster’s care. From day one we felt a genuine connection and knew we were in the hands of an expert in the field. Dr Brewster’s direct care made a huge impact on my mother’s life and the lives of her friends and family. I will never forget her compassion and care. My thoughts and sympathies go out to Dr Brewster’s family and friends on their loss. I am so sorry.
Thank you for dedicating your life to assist others. You have made an indelible and positive impact on our family. Our memories of you shall not fade, we are forever grateful for your guidance and expertise.
– Raymond and Stephanie J.
Wendy Brewster was my doctor in 2008 when I had the third occurrence of vaginal cancer. It was shortly before she moved to North Carolina. I’m sure she saved my life. At the time the statistic said I had 5 years or less to live. It’s 2023 and I am still here. I know she is partly responsible for that. I just found out today, October 4th, about her passing and I can’t stop crying. I loved her. We stayed in touch all these years and we always exchanged Christmas cards. I did hear from her last Christmas and I was worried something was wrong. I can’t be needing to reach out again. I found out today for my gynecologist she recommended here in california. I am very sad.
– Denise R.
Extremely sad to hear about Dr. Brewster’s death. Was diagnosed in 2012 with endometrial cancer. Had a full Hysterectomy. Now age 72. Cancer free! She was an Excellent Dr. And CARED. Dr. Brewster is at Peace. God Blessed her and her family. My condolences. A past Patient.
– Glora L.
Dr. Brewster saved my life 2 years ago from ovarian cancer at 25, now going on 27 years old I will never forget this wonderful women!
– Harmony K.
– M.G.Fiorilli, MD, MPH
Dr. Brewster saved one of my dearest friends, Judy. I came with Judy to many of her appointments and Dr. Brewster never wavered not once in her confidence that if she stayed the course she could beat this. It was a brutal battle and to this day she still battles the fallout but she’s alive and loved so dearly by her family and friends. To you Dr. Brewster may you rest quietly now knowing you were admired and loved by so many you never even knew. Chapel Hill cries tears of blue for you today. A patient’s friend.
– Lisa A.
My deepest sympathy to Dr. Brewster’s family and loved ones. I met her at one of my sister’s appointments and I can’t express the gratitude for her keeping my sister going still today. She had a difficult task as having to give some good news while others not so good. Her kindness, brilliance and very much reputable presence will be missed by all. She gave her life to a battle she fought for some many others along the way. Rest in peace my friend. Rest in peace and we honor all of what you did.
– Gail S.
Dr. Brewster was one of our best and brightest — full stop.
– CR Thomas, Jr.
What a great privilege to have worked with such a caring, gifted, and selfless person. Wendy was truly in a class all her own and I had the pleasure of calling her friend. Despite keeping a very busy schedule, she always made time to check-in on my family, challenge me to go higher in my own career goals, and randomly show love through small gifts of appreciation. Wendy is already missed however we will continue working to honor her legacy.
– Lauren M.
I am so grateful for having the chance to work with Wendy. She was highly principled and pragmatic. She cared to make a difference in everything she did, and she challenged others to do the same. She saw the best in everyone. And her smile and quick laugh… Her passing is a tremendous loss on so many levels.
– Bill S.