Finding My Niche

Finding My Niche

Linda R. Duska, MD, MPH

May 07, 2019

When I went to medical school at NYU in midtown Manhattan in the late 1980s, I really wanted to be a surgeon. But I also wanted to get married and have a family, and back then it was not exactly acceptable to do both. I loved my surgery rotation and the chair of surgery told me I would be a great fit for the program, but he also discouraged the idea of having a family during residency.

Then I did my obstetrics/gynecology rotation and met Dr. Iffath Hoskins, who understood my goals and strengths and encouraged me to do a rotation with her husband—a gynecologic oncology surgeon at Memorial Sloan Kettering. So I did. I took the bus uptown every day for a month to do a gynecologic oncology rotation with Dr. Bill Hoskins. That month was transformational. I learned that gynecologic oncologists did technically complex and intricate pelvic surgeries, and they also did the surgeries that I wanted to do: bowel surgery, splenectomies, big ovarian cancer surgeries. They took care of women for the entire course of their disease, including disease-related bowel obstructions, end-of-life care, chemotherapy complications, and more.

And I learned that I could pursue this appealing career by going through obstetrics/gynecology, a specialty that would allow me to also have a family. So I did. I did my residency at Johns Hopkins, then a fellowship in gynecologic oncology at Massachusetts General, where I learned to perform the complex surgeries that I love, as well as prescribe chemotherapy and take care of women with gynecologic cancers. (Gyn oncologists are the only surgical oncologists that operate and also give chemotherapy; gyn cancers are our own special niche.) As a fellow, I presented my first ASCO poster while I was pregnant with my second daughter.

I am passionate about taking care of women with gynecologic cancer, and I love taking care of them throughout the course of their disease. I enjoy the instant gratification of surgery—making someone feel better by taking out a large mass, the challenge of removing a large ovarian cancer, the intricate pelvic anatomy in a radical hysterectomy. I developed the clinical judgment that comes with years of practice. Knowing when to take someone to the OR and, more important, when not to take them; when surgery is the answer to a bowel obstruction and when palliative care is a better choice.

I became passionate about clinical research and made that my career path, to improve the care of women with gyn cancer through clinical trials. Added bonus: As a surgeon I have access to tissue in many different clinical contexts, and this has become even more valuable as translational research has grown in importance.

I joined ASCO early, during my fellowship, in part because it was free to join as a fellow and in part because I wanted to immerse myself in the clinical research aspect of my career. I knew the ASCO Annual Meeting was one of the places to keep up with the latest in clinical research, interact with other clinical trialists, connect with industry partners on opportunities for investigator-initiated studies, and be exposed to the broad experience of developmental therapeutics in all disease types. 

I had colleagues and mentors within ASCO, especially Dr. Don Dizon (but also many others!), who were integral in helping me learn about the organization and who encouraged me to get involved. So I did. I made a professional home for myself at ASCO by volunteering. I started with joint committees with societies I already belonged to (ACOG, SGO), then started blogging for ASCO Connection, and things took off from there.

If you’re a young professional coming to the ASCO Annual Meeting this year or thinking about getting more involved in the organization, here’s my best advice: Find a mentor. Find someone who will be a mentor/sponsor for you, who will guide you, who will introduce you to other people, who will point you toward important volunteer opportunities.

Then, participate. Go to the ASCO Annual Meeting every year. Present your research and stand by your poster so that others can share their opinions and give you advice. Raise your hand when interesting volunteer opportunities arise.

Speaking as a gynecologic oncology surgeon, clinical researcher, boarded in palliative care, with a degree in public health, I can say this from experience: Be present, and you will find your niche.

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