Rising Women in Veterinary Oncology

Rising Women in Veterinary Oncology

An introduction from Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Gerry Post

Veterinary medicine is changing. I remember one of my first days in veterinary school looking at the class pictures that were hung in the hallways. I remember seeing the first woman in one of these class photos and noting that she was still practicing.

Indeed, over the past 30 years, the number of women entering veterinary medicine has grown substantially. I have witnessed that trend happening in veterinary oncology as well. But the numbers don’t tell the entire story. These women are making substantial progress and truly changing the face of veterinary oncology. Whether it be identifying problems from a different perspective or engaging with clients and patients in unique ways, the 7 women profiled in this post are truly rising stars in veterinary oncology. Their contributions to the practice and science of veterinary oncology will be evident for years to come.

Dr. Julie Bulman-Fleming, DVM, Diplomate, ACVIM Oncology) Thrive- Veterinary Cancer Group

What got you interested in veterinary oncology?

I have wanted to be a veterinarian since I was very young, but thought I wanted to be a surgeon! As I was applying to vet school, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Seeing how important the conversations between the patient, their family, and their oncologist were really impacted me and lead me to pursue oncology. I wanted to be able to truly explain and walk families through the diagnosis and treatment options and hopefully make the process less scary.

What is the most rewarding part of being a veterinary oncologist?

Giving our patients more quality time with their family. I love seeing photos and hearing about a camping trip, a wedding, a beach day, or a visit with the grandkids that my patient and their family shared after a cancer diagnosis.

What has been the most unexpected challenge and what did you learn from it?

The emotional toll providing veterinary care, but specifically cancer care, takes on veterinarians and their support staff. Especially during the pandemic, compassion fatigue and burnout are very common. As a profession, we need to take better care of ourselves and each other.

What do you say to your peers, especially women, considering a career in veterinary care, especially in veterinary oncology?

Surround yourself with people who want to learn, want to teach, want to do their best and be better, and who want to have the best day they can. Strive to be one of these people. Build your team, and then build them up.

Do you think that in 50 years, canine cancer will have a cure or at least become a chronic disease?

I hope so, but considering cancer as one disease is one of the main limitations to achieving this. We know now that not only do the types of cancer differ vastly, but that within a tumor type, and even within an individual patient, cancer cells are not identical. We need to recognize and target these differences. This will allow us to predict which patients have a higher chance of cure, and choose the best therapy to achieve this.

Name one inspiring woman in veterinary oncology, oncology or science in general, that we should all know about.

Dr Barb Kitchell, an amazing clinical oncologist, teacher and children's advocate.

Dr. Kim Freeman DVM, DACVIM (Oncology)

Veterinary Cancer & Surgery Specialists

What got you interested in veterinary oncology?

As a kid, I was drawn to the subject of biology and specifically genetics. As I got older and starting to think about a career, I became interested in veterinary medicine since it allowed for an exploration of medical science and working with animals (rather than people). While in vet school, I did a summer externship with the oncology group at Univ. of TN where I was able to spend some time in the clinic as well as do oncology bench research.

What is the most rewarding part of being a veterinary oncologist?

Working with clients that are super dedicated to the care of their pets and seeing pets do well and succeed in response to treatments is the most rewarding.

What has been the most unexpected challenge and what did you learn from it?

One of the biggest challenges seems to be the lack of information that clients have before coming to see an oncologist. I have seen too many patients suffer while waiting for a consult because of a lack of continuity of care between the time of referral and the last time they saw their primary DVM. Often, these cases are hospice only cases and clients are coming to see an oncologist for permission to euthanize. It breaks my heart that our profession is unable to provide accurate information about prognosis and hospice care to clients without them having to wait and see an oncologist for this information.

Looking at our data, we found that our top 50 oncologists are 80% women. Any thoughts on why?

The demographic of the veterinary profession in general has shifted to a higher percentage of women. I suspect that is partly why. I'm not sure if there is another reason?

What do you say to your peers, especially women, considering a career in veterinary care, especially in veterinary oncology?

This is a highly rewarding field due to super appreciative clientele, ever evolving science, and complex medical cases.

Name one inspiring woman in veterinary oncology, oncology or science in general, that we should all know about.

Avenelle Turner

Please tell us anything additional you'd like to share.

In addition to being a veterinarian and an oncologist, I am also a business practice owner. This has brought additional challenges and rewards to my career. In a world dominated by large corporate practices, I feel a great sense of accomplishment having my own successful privately owned practice. There are not many mentors or role models for women specialty practice business owners and I just want to let people know that it's possible and if there are things you want out of practice that a corporation cannot offer you, you can do it on your own :)

Dr. Kate Megquier DVM, Ph.D                                                       Broad Institute MIT and Harvard

What got you interested in veterinary field?

I became a veterinarian because I wanted to help pets with cancer. During veterinary school, I decided to pursue a combined DVM/MS degree in Comparative Biomedical Sciences because I wanted to help discover better diagnostics and therapies for veterinary cancer patients. I became involved in a study looking for genetic risk factors for canine hemangiosarcoma, and found the research exciting and engaging. I wanted to continue to learn more, so once I completed my veterinary training, I decided to pursue a PhD to broaden my expertise in genomics and to apply my skills to veterinary and comparative cancer research.

What is the most rewarding part of being a geneticist/genomicist?

The most rewarding thing is being able to contribute to the development of new tests and treatments that help patients both in veterinary and human medicine. Currently, my focus is on developing blood biopsy techniques in dogs. Blood biopsy is a cutting-edge technique that has tremendous potential for longitudinal monitoring of patients to detect relapse and emerging resistance to therapy, and as a diagnostic tool. I am excited to see how this new technique is incorporated into clinical practice over the coming years.

What do you say to your peers, especially women, considering a career in veterinary care?

I want more veterinarians to know that research, particularly genomic research, is a career option. I think many vets don't realize that this type of research is one of the paths available to them when they enter the field, although that is changing slowly.

Do you think that in 50 years, canine cancer will have a cure or at least become a chronic disease?

It has been exciting to see the advances in canine cancer research over the last decade, and I think the pace of new discoveries and translation to the clinic will only increase. I don't know what the future holds, but am hopeful that we will be able to cure many cancers or manage them so that dogs with cancer can still have long, happy lives.

Name one inspiring woman in veterinary oncology, oncology or science in general, that we should all know about.

There are so many inspiring women that I work with in veterinary oncology that it's hard to choose just one! I would say that Dr. Heather Gardner, an oncologist and assistant professor at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine is an inspiring canine cancer researcher working in both cancer genomics and clinical trials.

Dr. Christine Oakley DVM, Diplomate ACVIM (Oncology) Thrive- Veterinary Cancer Group

What got you interested in veterinary oncology?

My first job in veterinary oncology (or veterinary medicine at all) was as an technician assistant for Veterinary Cancer Group, and I fell in love with the profession. I was truly touched at the strength of the human animal bond- I felt like we were helping both the animals and their pet parents. Even as an assistant, I could also sense it was an intellectually challenging field that was full of new therapeutic options that were constantly being tested with clinical trials. This seemed to be a specialty full of promise for growth, which set it apart.

What is the most rewarding part of being a veterinary oncologist?

Seeing improvements in your patients is the best part of the day, week, month, year. Patients that were not doing well before treatment can have a complete reversal in quality of life, even shocking their pet parents at how young and sprightly they become. The gratitude of these pet parents is also rewarding and especially welcome, given the psychological difficulties faced during the pandemic.

What has been the most unexpected challenge and what did you learn from it?

The most unexpected challenge is learning about new and emerging therapies that show promise, but are not available. There are many peer-reviewed publications with therapeutic options that are not commercially available to veterinary medical oncologists. Or if they were commercially available at one point, they no longer are. Our pet parents will often find these articles, and we have to explain that these are only options in labs or research settings.

Looking at our data, we found that our top 50 oncologists are 80% women. Any thoughts on why?

My first comment would be that this gender trend is reflected in veterinary medicine overall, especially on the small animal side (mixed and large animal medicine have a higher population of male veterinarians). This field is filled with shades of grey- many of the questions in this field have multiple different answers. There isn't just one right answer, and for this reason many think of oncology as an art blended with a science. I think this ambiguity is something that often attracts female veterinarians. Another reason may be that this profession requires a lot of hand-holding and time spent with owners, so compassion and bedside manner are requisite.

What do you say to your peers, especially women, considering a career in veterinary care, especially in veterinary oncology?

I absolutely encourage them in this journey. I will not sugar coat that it is a challenge to make it to being a board certified medical oncologist, and that every week there is some emotional turmoil to the job, but it is worth it time and time again.

Do you think that in 50 years, canine cancer will have a cure or at least become a chronic disease?

I definitely do not think in 50 years canine cancer will have a cure, because I do not think human cancer will have a cure (they often go hand in hand). I think we will have achieved early detection of cancer, because that is improving on the human side and there are many companies currently in development to try to achieve the same for pets. I think the goal will be the range of options that are available that exclude chemotherapy: immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies. With the advent of these, the goal will be to have it become a manageable chronic disease.

Name one inspiring woman in veterinary oncology, oncology or science in general, that we should all know about.

Cheryl London should be a household name at this point if she isn't already. I have known her since I was a vet student at Ohio State and she was on faculty. The advances she has brought to veterinary oncology are staggering. Dr. Nicola Mason has also done incredible work on the osteosarcoma front as well.

Dr. Elizabeth Schuh DVM, DIPLOMATE ACVIM (ONCOLOGY) Thrive- Veterinary Cancer Group

What got you interested in veterinary oncology?

I loved clinical pathology but realized I wouldn't have any interaction with clients and patients. I have a personal vendetta against oncology, like most of us, and I realized there is still a huge amount of growth to close the gap in veterinary oncology.

What is the most rewarding part of being a veterinary oncologist?

The most rewarding part of my job is helping families make good decisions. Good decisions for each family and patient look different. My job is to provide thorough information and guidance to families from beginning to end and I truly cherish the bonds that trust and guidance forms

Looking at our data, we found that our top 50 oncologists are 80% women. Any thoughts on why?

Women are inherently nurturers but we can also be fierce - it takes a bit of bravery to push into uncharted territory and that's the perfect combination for veterinary oncology - fierce kindness

Do you think that in 50 years, canine cancer will have a cure or at least become a chronic disease?

I do think that canine (and feline!) cancer will become chronic diseases in 50 years.

Dr. Avenelle Turner DVM, DACVIM (Oncology) Metropolitan Animal Specialty Hospital

What got you interested in veterinary oncology?

During my general internship, I realized that the oncology patients would be the patients that you got to know better because of the frequency of their visits. They were also the patients that didn't have as many people fighting for them to succeed. I enjoyed helping these patients feel better and get more quality time with the owners that loved them.

What is the most rewarding part of being a veterinary oncologist?

The most rewarding part is helping pets have more quality time with their owners and proving over and over that cancer is no different than any other chronic disease that comes with age. Oftentimes the outcomes with successful treatment are better than other, age related diseases and giving owners hope and seeing their pets thrive makes the sad parts of the job worth it.

What has been the most unexpected challenge and what did you learn from it?

The most unexpected challenge is the emotional toll this specialty can have on your soul over time. I've learned that I can't do this job without having the emotional investment and that means I may not be able to do this until I reach the age to retire.

Looking at our data, we found that our top 50 oncologists are 80% women. Any thoughts on why?

Most veterinarians are women and oncology is more of a touchy-feely specialty that women are more likely to gravitate to.

What do you say to your peers, especially women, considering a career in veterinary care, especially in veterinary oncology?

I tell them that you have to adjust what success means to you. Cures are rare but long term survivals are possible. Also, making time to do things to recharge and to step away is necessary in order to continue to do the job without burning out.

Do you think that in 50 years, canine cancer will have a cure or at least become a chronic disease?

Absolutely!

Name one inspiring woman in veterinary oncology, oncology or science in general, that we should all know about.

Kristy Richard's. She was an PhD/MD that was a leader in comparative oncology. She unfortunately died of breast cancer 3 years ago but her vision and ideas helped make physicians see the value in comparative medicine and veterinary oncology.

Dr. Michelle White DVM, Ph.D

Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard

What got you interested in veterinary field?

I wanted to understand all that I could about animals: how to read their body language, help them when they’re sick, understand what makes them happy... the works!

What is the most rewarding part of being a geneticist/genomicist?

What’s not to love? There is a seemingly endless supply of puzzles to solve within our genomes, and the data is coming in faster and faster as we get better at analyzing it. I have no hope of narrowing it down to one best part.

What has been the most unexpected challenge and what did you learn from it?

I didn’t realize the degree to which our system of training specialists within the veterinary profession (including veterinary oncologists) was stacked against our spoken goals of increasing diversity within the profession. The long hours and low pay of internships and residencies often prevent those without outside financial support from family or spouses from successfully gaining advanced training. This includes many veterinarians from lower-income families and those with children or other dependents (especially single parents). The experiences I’ve had as a veterinarian interested in oncology (and as a parent with a spouse in specialty training) have shown me that the road to a more diverse profession will require fundamental changes to our training paradigm.

What do you say to your peers, especially women, considering a career in veterinary care?

If your passion is veterinary oncology, it’s a truly exciting time to enter the field. We are able to sequence more DNA and other “-omic” data than ever before, and new technologies for targeting specific tumor types and genetic alterations are emerging constantly. I would encourage anyone interested in learning more to seek out those people doing the types of medicine or research that excites you most and start making a plan for yourself to gain the skills and opportunities you’ll need.

Do you think that in 50 years, canine cancer will have a cure or at least become a chronic disease?

That’s the plan!

Name one inspiring woman in veterinary oncology, oncology or science in general, that we should all know about.

There are so many I’d love to talk about, but I’ll only break the rules a little by choosing two: Dr. Lillie Davis, DVM DACVIM (Oncology) is a classmate of mine practicing veterinary oncology in the greater Philly area. She guides pets and their guardians through cancer diagnoses and treatments with compassion while simultaneously working to improve the lives of other veterinary professionals. She advocates for a more inclusive profession with better safeguards to avoid burnout and improve mental I am proud to know her.
Dr. Cherice Roth, DVM is an innovator and entrepreneur using technologies including telemedicine and artificial intelligence to help all animals get access to the care they need. She is a veterinarian, engineer, mentor, industry leader, author, mother, and so much more! No problem within the veterinary profession is safe from Dr. Roth.

If you missed last year's feature highlighting 5 women in veterinary oncology, check it out here.

Dr. Gerry Post

Dr. Gerry Post has been practicing veterinary medicine for over 25 years specializing in veterinary oncology. He currently serves as Chief Veterinary Officer at the One Health Company.

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