The Power of Professional Friendships and Sisterhood

The Power of Professional Friendships and Sisterhood

Women in Oncology

Mar 13, 2017

By Uma Borate, MD, MS

As female oncologists, we are a unique species of female physicians. We have achieved professional success in a subspecialty that has specific emotional and mental challenges that come from caring for patients with cancer. When you add to that the not-so-unique emotional challenges of becoming mothers to young children at the beginning or the middle of our careers, we are juggling truly significant professional and personal demands on our psyches.

When our patients and families ask so much of us, we often experience emotional distress, stress, and burnout. In my experience, the best preventative strategy for this phenomenon has been my village of my fellow female oncology sisters. I realized very early on as I started my fellowship facing some significant personal stressors that if I was to care for the really sick patients on the BMT service and do a good job, I needed allies with whom I could talk about my personal life as well as my patient experiences. My fellow female fellows in training quickly became my best friends and confidants. We discussed our lives at home, our joys and struggles at work, and our career dreams. As we progressed thorough training, I continued to keep in touch with fellow oncology trainees at different institutions during professional conferences and other educational events.

These meeting and our discussions made me feel empowered and a lot less alone. As we all forged ahead and found our different career paths and focuses on solid tumors versus hematologic malignancies versus BMT or academic versus private practice, we continued our sisterhood even when we were in different places and institutions using social media and other communication channels.

As babies and children came into our lives, we swapped stories on our coping mechanisms and the struggles to balance careers and motherhood. Just knowing we were all in this together made me feel less alone and vulnerable. I drew strength from these amazing women who inspired me to keep up the good work.

As I officially enter the mid-career phase of my professional life and both my children are sleeping through the night, I reflect back on this amazing journey and give thanks. To my fellow female oncology colleagues who are also my sisters and friends: thank you for holding my hand, my head, and heart as we all walk forward caring for our patients and our families, and as we advance the cause of bettering cancer care.

Dr. Borate is an assistant professor at Oregon Health & Science University, where she specializes in taking care of patients with aggressive blood cancers, especially acute leukemias. She feels privileged to be involved in the care of patients with cancer and be a partner in their fight against their disease.


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Sonali M. Smith, MD

Mar, 13 2017 4:53 PM

Dear Uma--thank you for this fantastic post! I completely agree--we are lucky to be training in a time where more and more women are part of the workforce. While we also bond with men, having female colleagues with similar struggles and interests builds the sense of community and, as you put it, sisterhood. Last year, I was at a meeting where the social hour naturally focused on hobbies and interests. I found myself drawn to two women from Spain and Italy where we connected on a variety of work and family issues. I was so comfortable with them, and thought how much easier it is to "break the ice" when women are part of the group. Thanks for your input!

Jane Lowe Meisel, MD

Mar, 16 2017 3:06 PM

This piece really spoke to me - every year at ASCO I room with two of my closest friends from residency who are now, like me, mothers to young children and academic medical oncologists.  We have 'grown up' together as we became first doctors, then wives, then mothers, and we grow closer every year even though we are now miles apart, as we swap stories about how we are weaving all of these elements into our lives.  Thank you for your beautiful words!


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