By Jane Lowe Meisel, MD
A fourth-year medical student who rotated in my clinic last month asked me at the end of her rotation if she could come by my office sometime, just to pick my brain about some of the things she had been wondering about outside of clinic. We had had an intense month together: we saw several young new patients grappling with what cancer and chemotherapy would mean for them and their families; we had hospice discussions with women I had become close to over the years; we had days that were so heavily overbooked that I didn’t have time for much more than bites of cereal between visits. She and I hadn’t had as much time for reflection as I would have ideally liked, and I agreed it would be a great idea to meet.
About a month after our last clinic session together and at the appointed time, my student arrived promptly at my office. She brought a list of questions, much like some of our highly motivated patients bring when they come for a consultation. Given that she was not yet even in residency, I found myself marveling at how much foresight she had to even be wondering about the things she was asking about. She wanted to know my thoughts on how to most effectively run a team of nurses, midlevel providers, and other staff. She wanted to learn how I thought about time management when juggling clinical, research, and educational responsibilities. On a deeper level, she asked about how I was able to be fully present for each patient but not become so lost in any one story that it was difficult to genuinely engage with the next. She also asked about family: she had seen many patients ask about my children, and ask to see pictures of soccer and baseball games and family celebrations they knew I was having. She wondered: how do you find enough time and energy for your sons when being an oncologist can be so physically and emotionally all-encompassing?
Talking with her made me reflect a lot on how far I have come personally as well as professionally in the past four years since transitioning from fellow to faculty member. I have the most incredibly rewarding relationships with patients as well as colleagues; I have become deeply engaged in clinical research at my institution and with collaborators across the country; I have gotten the opportunity to mentor residents and students in whose growth and success I have been thrilled to play a small role. Also, as with many of us who finish fellowship in our early 30s (or later), my family has grown just as my career has started. Starting with the birth of our oldest son six weeks into our respective fellowships, my husband and I have become the parents of two sweet boys who are now old enough to understand (in a limited way) what we do and be proud of it. We are infinitely busy but infinitely lucky.
However, things aren’t always perfect. There are days when I feel I am “winning the game”: the kids are happy; work is meaningful and productive; I am eating my vegetables and getting enough sleep. But then there are the days when things aren’t as rosy: I miss a school event because of a long-ago-planned work trip; clinic runs behind; I lose a young patient who was close to me. And I acknowledge that as a busy oncologist and a young mother I don’t give myself much me-time; truthfully, I haven’t exercised regularly since before my kids were born and other than being an avid Little League cheerleader and singing along while they practice guitar, I do not have a lot of active hobbies. I could do better, but I try not to beat myself up about it. Despite the good days and bad days, our successes and challenges, we are all doing our best.
As women in oncology, we have so many common stories and so much to learn from one another. I have been fortunate to have been involved in the Women in Oncology Working Group at ASCO for the past three years. The women I have met through this group have been an amazing sounding board for me: we have talked about maternity leave policies, promotions, setting expectations, workplace culture, and the list goes on and on. As the ASCO Annual Meeting gets closer—now just a few weeks away!—we are thrilled to be rolling out the final schedule of events that will be taking place at ASCO’s Women’s Networking Center. For those of you who haven’t been in years past, it is a physical space on the fifth floor of the convention center that boasts comfy couches for lounging, tables and chairs for meeting, and, of course, coffee and snacks. Last year, I participated as a mentor to more junior women; I also attended a panel called “Coffee Talk with ASCO’s Female Leaders,” where I had the opportunity to learn from past ASCO presidents and other extremely successful women far more senior to me. Learning, connecting, reflecting together—that is what the Women’s Networking Center is all about. And particularly at a huge meeting where there is so much to learn and take in, having a “safe space” to decompress and to connect can rejuvenate you.
The Women’s Networking Center is a great place for us to do on a large scale what my student and I did last week on a smaller one: reflect on our triumphs and struggles, think about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead; and make connections. The mentoring program will be bigger and better than ever this year, and we have some amazing sessions planned that we hope will be extremely fruitful for those who participate. Some new things we are offering this year are a resiliency session geared towards practical interventions we can incorporate into everyday life; a session on leadership opportunities for early-career oncologists; and several sessions looking at ways to support each other and advance our careers. To learn more about the 2019 Women’s Networking Center sessions, and sign up for Mentoring Office Hours, please visit the Women’s Networking Center section under the Annual Meeting: Networking Lounges site.
I look forward to seeing, connecting with, and learning from many of you at ASCO and at the Women’s Networking Center!
Dr. Meisel is a medical oncologist at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta, GA. There, she specializes in treating breast and gynecologic cancers and enjoys running clinical trials for women with these malignancies and teaching Emory’s medical students, fellows, and residents. She is also a wife to another physician, mother of two young boys, and the leader of ASCO’s 2018-2019 Women in Oncology Work Group. Follow her on Twitter @jane_meisel.