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The Value of Mentorship in Developing Women Surgeons

The surgical treatment of cancer is used in up to 80 percent of cases and is the oldest form of cancer treatment. While most cancer surgeries are performed by general surgeons, the American Board of Surgery recognized surgical oncology as a sub-specialty in 2011. Since that time, the number of women becoming general surgeons has grown considerably.  

More to be done

In the Association of American Medical Colleges 2018 ”Physician Specialty Data Report,” only 20.6 percent of active general surgeons are women. However, the number of women residents and fellows in general surgery was 40.1 percent. Furthermore, the Society of Surgical Oncology (SSO) reports that in the period of 2016–2018, complex general surgical oncology (CGSO) fellowship programs were 38 percent women and breast oncology fellowship programs were 86 percent women. 

Sandra L. Wong, MD, MS, Chair of Surgery at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and SSO Treasurer, stated, “Women in surgical careers are gaining momentum, but we are not at critical mass yet. While my career has been shaped in many ways, I definitely have benefited from women who were on the leading edge and made it possible for women to be leaders in academic surgery.” 

The necessary help

The success of any career relies on role models and mentors. Nora Jaskowiak, MD, Professor of Surgery and Surgical Director, at the University of Chicago Breast Center, remembers, “I didn’t have any female surgical oncology mentors during my time in medical school. [But] in my residency at UCSF, I had two amazing women surgeons as mentors: Nancy Ascher, MD, a liver transplant surgeon, and Linda Riley, MD, a vascular surgeon. It was here that I received the directive, ‘Be excellent, Be admired, Be a leader’.” 

Callisia N. Clarke, MD, assistant professor at Medical College of Wisconsin, said, “’Persistence pays’ is the story of my journey. I immigrated to the United Sates from Jamaica when I was 17. I knew since a young age that I wanted to be a surgeon, but along the way there was a lot of discouragement … whether that would align with my goals as a woman and being able to find satisfaction with a career that was so demanding. One of my female mentors was a division chief in colorectal surgery. She was a phenomenal surgeon, a good teacher, a wife, and a mother, and she taught me to be comfortable in my own skin.”

Many surgeons, same goal

Motivated by a common goal to deliver the best patient care, these women agree that a career in surgical oncology is demanding and rewarding. Dr. Wong said, “In careers like this, it’s never just chance. A lot of it is being deliberate about what you do today to take care of patients, doing the research, and having an eye toward a longer-term goal, and, when you are starting off, saying ‘yes’ to opportunities.” Dr. Clarke stated, “Every time we have good outcomes and a patient is satisfied with their care — regardless of whether or not that’s a cure — I think it’s a win.” Dr. Jaskowiak concludes, “For a career in surgery for young women, there’s no question — [whether in] contributing to advances [or] caring for patients — just go for it.”

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