Advancing Women’s Leadership in Oncology

By Julie M. Vose, MD, MBA, FASCO

In June, I was invited to speak at the Women Leaders in Oncology (WLO) Forum during the 2017 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting about my experience over the past three decades in oncology, a field with historically few female leaders.

Since the event, I have been thinking more often about my experience, how gender diversity impacts patient care, and what we can do to support and grow young female minds in oncology. After all, the advances in science are moving at a rapid pace, but one code we have yet to crack is how to equalize gender opportunities in the medical profession.

Some literature describing differences between physicians of different genders indicates that female physicians show greater affinity for collaborative models of patient-physician relationships and spend more time with patients, engaging them in discussions around their social and psychological well-being. Importantly, I do not believe that the take-away for this type of research should be that one gender is better than another when caring for patients. My  experience, however, does show that cancer requires different approaches–from early research to the patient’s bedside–to provide the best care and outcomes for patients while considering their loved ones. This includes creating a cancer community that better reflects the diversity of the patients we are treating. I believe that if we want to continue improving the survival statistics for cancer patients, we need to continue looking at things differently, creatively, and collectively.  We need the best and the brightest, regardless of race or gender.

Fortunately, we are making progress. In fact, women are a growing segment of the medical profession and, in some specialties, are already the majority. But, we can do more to close the gap. We can let young minds know the opportunities that exist for them. For those of us already in the field, that may mean mentoring young women throughout their career. We can also support funding for women-led oncology research.

Which brings me back to Women Leaders in Oncology. In addition to providing an opportunity to network and foster a collaborative, mentorship-focused environment, another important aspect of the group is providing support for young female cancer researchers. As part of the annual event, WLO raises funds for ASCO’s Women Who Conquer Cancer (WWCC) Young Investigator Awards, a program that provides research funds (through grants) to support the promising careers of women cancer researchers. Already in 2017, five WWCC Young Investigator Awards have been granted through the efforts of WLO and WWCC. They didn’t stop these efforts at the conclusion of the ASCO annual meeting; the WLO Forum continues to raise funding online.

As I stood at the podium looking out at more than 200 women oncologists, scientists, and pharmaceutical industry professionals attending this year’s WLO event, I had two thoughts: first, how thankful I am to be able to share my experience and mentor young women entering the field; and, second, how nice it must be to start off a career with so many impressive women role models and colleagues.

We have already come a long way, and together we can continue to reach new heights and see more women leading in oncology by encouraging young female minds to join in the fight against cancer and supporting innovative research ideas. After all, early research today is what will bring the new and better treatment options of tomorrow.

If you are interested in joining the effort, you can find more information about the WWCC Young Investigator Awards here.

Women Leaders in Oncology reception in Chicago on June 5, 2017.
Photos by © ASCO/Danny Morton 2017

Julie M. Vose, MD, MBA, FASCO, is the Neumann M. and Mildred E. Harris Professorial Chair and the current Chief of the Oncology/Hematology Division in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC). Dr. Vose received all of her medical education and training at UNMC and has been a faculty member since 1990. She is an internationally known expert in stem cell transplantation the treatment of patients with lymphoma.  She was the 2015-16 ASCO President and continues to support ASCO and the Conquer Cancer Foundation through the Women Who Conquer Cancer and the Women’s Leader in Oncology efforts.