Empowering Women in Oncology and Beyond on International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day encourages individuals to reflect on and continue efforts to ensure that women receive advocacy in different fields, including the oncology space. Therefore, it is important to reflect on the challenges of balancing priorities, self-care, and personal relationships alongside professional achievements, according to Eirwen M. Miller, MD.

“I feel fortunate to work in an institution where my gender [is not] necessarily seen as the defining quality of who I am or what I bring to the table; rather, [I am recognized for] the hard work, commitment, knowledge, and ideas contributed to the team,” said Miller, a gynecologic oncologist at the Allegheny Health Network (AHN) West Penn Hospital, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

In an interview with OncLive®, Miller discussed her experience as a woman in the oncology field, emphasized the importance of merit in the workplace and ensuring gender is not seen as a defining quality of oncologists, and highlighted the importance of advocating for female patients as a gynecologic oncologist.

OncLive: What challenges have you faced as a woman in the field of oncology?

Miller: [These challenges are] certainly not universal, but [it is] common that a woman in the family often carries a slightly heavier workload in the home in terms of taking care of kids and household chores. Trying to find a time to both prioritize my kids and make them feel loved, but not neglecting the significant medical needs that my patients have is one of the hardest balances.

[You never want] to feel like one of your patients will look back at their cancer journey and think that they did not have 100% attention from their doctor. We do not want them to wonder if their doctor missed something, or [feel that if] we had done or talked about something [earlier that] something would be different. Yet, you also know there is a set number of hours in each day to pay attention to all the sources of need in your life, and it is a big challenge to strike that balance.

What strategies or initiatives could help address gender disparities to provide equal opportunities for women in oncology and medicine?

It comes from a top-down approach, and I’ll say that I feel fortunate at AHN because I work with a leadership team that values women in leadership positions and gives us equal opportunity to [reach] them.

Maintaining a high degree of professionalism at all times is critical, and [we need to] think critically about the problems that we face in health-care. As a woman at AHN, I’ve been supported by the leaders above me both in the department and in the network to [have] opportunities and achieve success both in the administrative and clinical things I do every day. Awareness and open conversation about an employee’s goals and expectations are important.

As a gynecologic oncologist, what is the importance of advocating for women from a patient perspective?

This is a hugely critical part of what I do every day, as 100% of my patients are women. They are women [at] every stage of life, from teenage years to 80 or 90 years [of age]. Understanding where my patients are in their life and their priorities [is vital]. [For example, with] mothers who I take care of who say they just want to be alive to see their child graduate from college, or a grandmother who wants to feel well enough to go to her grandchild’s volleyball game, [I can] help identify the goals in a particular woman’s life that we’re trying to achieve.

Understanding where [an individual] woman is and the journey of her life, what her goals are, and trying to create a treatment plan around those helps patients achieve those goals. Understanding who they are as people, as women, and as family members is important. [We cannot] lose sight of that when we’re laser-focused on treating cancer.

What is the importance of events such as International Women’s Day, and how do they help ensure women—both care givers and patients—are being advocated in the oncology space?

As a population of patients, [more can be done to help] women advocate for themselves. [This is] not in the sense that they’re afraid to speak up, but they’re stoic. They spend a lot of their lives living for other people, caring for other people, being the primary caregiver to their elderly parents, or being the primary caregiver to their children. We find often that women put their own needs on the back burner.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve had a woman come in and say, ‘This has been going on for a year or so, but I didn’t have time to get here. My father has been ill, and I’ve been taking care of him. He passed away a couple months ago, so I figured it was time for me to come in and address this.’ Women [can] frequently put their own needs on the back burner to take care of the people around them.

When we think about what International Women’s Day means, women need to take the opportunity to address their own needs, health concerns, mental health, and wellness on a day-to-day basis [so they do] not get lost in all the other responsibilities of life.

How can institutions and organizations play a better role in advocating for gender equality within the medical field?

It is important to have an appreciation that contribution in the medical field is not related to gender; rather, [appreciation should be based on] what you bring to the table in terms of knowledge, work, and commitment to patient care. Gender isn’t at the crux of that.

There are a lot of competing priorities in a day. Trying to spend some time every day to think about what those priorities are and how you make time for all of them [is important]. I certainly don’t have [all] the answers to that. I’m not sure if I’ve struck the balance [of priorities] quite right. I don’t know if I ever will. Trying to balance those priorities and giving time to all the things [can be hard].

In medicine, we spend a lot of years being overachievers and being the best of the best to get to where we are. However, you [may] lose the commitment to yourself and [can] forget how important it is to support all those relationships outside of the hospital as well. These can include family members, long-term friendships, your relationship with your spouse, your relationship with your kids, or your relationship with yourself. Balancing those things every day is not an easy one.

First appeared on www.onclive.com

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