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How I Became a Surgical Oncologist and ASCO Education Scholar

Jan 12, 2023

Jennifer Tseng, MD, is an associate clinical professor in the Department of Surgery at City of Hope National Medical Center and the medical director of Breast Surgery at City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center in Irvine, California. Dr. Tseng moved back to her hometown in California in May 2022 to start a breast surgery program at the new Orange County location for City of Hope, after serving as an assistant professor of Surgery and associate program director of the General Surgery residency and Complex General Surgical Oncology fellowship at University of Chicago Medicine. Follow her on Twitter @Jenn_Tseng
How did you initially choose oncology as a career path? Were there any unexpected detours along the way? 
JT: I was inspired to pursue a path in health care after a college summer volunteering at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County working with pediatric oncology patients. This was my first exposure to what an honor and privilege it is to care for patients with cancer. My time at the National Cancer Institute working as a clinical immunotherapy fellow taking care of patients with stage IV cancer was one of the most challenging and rewarding times of my training and prompted me to seek out surgical oncology as my ultimate subspecialty to build upon the incredible work of my teachers and mentors.  
I switched from pre-law to pre-med partway through college so I had to catch up on a lot of coursework. I initially struggled in a biology course of several hundred other competitive classmates and a teacher’s aide told me that if I could not do well in the class, I was not meant to be doctor. Instead of being discouraged, this re-energized me to prove that my career aspiration was achievable. Initially struggling to succeed made me never take for granted what it takes in hard work and dedication to work in medicine. 
Every one of my patients and mentors have shaped my professional journey as each has taught me something, big or small. Every contact is an invaluable source of learning! 
Describe your typical workday (or work week). 
JT: I see patients in clinic for new consultations and in follow-up about two days a week. I am in the operating room for a comparable amount of time on alternate days. I also have administrative roles as a program leader and as a primary investigator and sub-investigator of several research studies/clinical trials. As I am helping to build a breast cancer treatment program at City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center, I am working with wonderful colleagues in clinical program development and creation of workflow processes to deliver the best possible comprehensive cancer care. Interspersed through all this, I work with community groups, news organizations, and social media for outreach and to better understand the needs of my local community.  
If you have to pick one aspect, what part of your job is your favorite? What part is the most challenging or frustrating? 
JT: I am in awe of my patients, who are so strong and brave through their journeys with cancer. I constantly am grateful to see a patient doing well after going through treatment. 
What continues to be challenging are the times when the cancer persists despite our best efforts, and this continues to motivate me to learn more and seek out new breakthroughs in therapies.  

Tell us about your experience in the ASCO Education Scholars Program (ESP). Are there any lessons or learnings from the ESP that are informing your work today? 

JT: The ASCO Education Scholars Program was an incredible experience. Not only was I able to learn from some of the best minds in oncology education, but I also met and have stayed friends with fabulous colleagues from around the country and world. We have continued to collaborate on educational programs, research, and outreach and our reunions at the ASCO Annual Meeting are a highlight for me every June. It is so commendable that ASCO invests the time and training to have us study high-impact learning science theory that we can immediately apply to our daily lives educating trainees and patients, as well as apply in our work in the broader oncology community.  

What do you wish you had known before you chose your career path? 

JT: Do what you love! If you are passionate about studying liberal arts, performing arts, engineering, or the law, playing sports, or investing in unique hobbies, these time pursuits are not mutually exclusive but rather often complementary to a career in medicine. So many fields are valuable for the knowledge, background, and skillsets to do well in oncology and surgery. Not only do they keep us grounded in a world outside medicine, but we can correspondingly better relate to our patients and their perspectives.  

Why would you recommend this field as a career to someone starting out in surgery and/or oncology? 

JT: Surgery and oncology are incredibly rewarding career paths. I was drawn to the specialty of surgery due to the fast-paced, high-energy ability to produce tangible, immediate results for patients. I greatly enjoy that surgical oncology entails meticulously planned complex surgical care performed in a collaborative, multidisciplinary setting. I have been very fortunate to work with amazing teams of health care providers in and out of the operating room to deliver cancer care that is at the forefront of quality and late-breaking science.  

What kind of person thrives in this professional environment? 

JT: A person who enjoys being a leader and an advocate, who values teamwork and is a strong communicator. In surgery and oncology, we are constantly striving to do better by our patients in clinical care, surgical advances, and research into the next frontier of treatment options.  

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