Special Feature: 5 Inspiring Women in Veterinary Oncology

In honor of Women’s History Month, we interviewed five extraordinary women leading the way in canine cancer research and care. Dr. Cheryl London,  Dr. Barbara Kitchell, Dr. Mona Rosenberg, Dr. Mary Kay Blake, and Dr. Linda Fineman are pillars of veterinary oncology and an inspiration to us all.

FidoCure’s mission to advance canine cancer treatment is truly a collaborative effort. We cannot move the mission forward without the veterinary oncology community. The leadership of these five women and their contributions to the community enable our work and energize us all to continue the fight for better canine cancer outcomes.

We are incredibly grateful to these inspiring women for their unique contributions to canine cancer care. We invite you to read the interviews and get inspired along with us.

What got you interested in veterinary oncology? Two things: The first one is my experience in vet school and the second is that while in private practice, seeing the large number of my patients that came through with cancer.  

Looking at our data, we found that our top 50 oncologists are 80% women. Any thoughts on why? I think it's just reflective of the field in general which has migrated from a primarily male dominated to a primarily female dominated field.

What do you say to young people, especially women, considering a career in veterinary care, especially in veterinary oncology? A career in veterinary oncology can be incredibly rewarding,  frustrating, heartbreaking and stimulating, all at the same time but I don't question my decision ever--any day.

Do you think that in 50 years, canine cancer will have a cure or at least become a chronic disease? Cancer is such a complex disease entity, that really is 100s of diseases, but it's hard to imagine that we'll cure everything, however I think we'll probably develop earlier detection, better prevention and better treatments for our patients.

Name one inspiring woman in veterinary oncology, oncology or science in general, that we should all know about. There are too many pivotal women that have been ground-breaking in veterinary medicine and oncology and science overall. One woman who comes to mind is Angelika Amon who was an award-winning MIT cell biologist who died of ovarian cancer at age 53. She was incredibly inspiring just by her enthusiasm for what she did and the joy of discovering and of finding something new, finding a new piece of the puzzle and her enthusiasm really was infectious. She pioneered research on chromosome imbalance, and really was a leader of the field, but I think what was really amazing about her was her absolute joy for what she did.

The other mentor that has been important in my life is Rebecca Jackson who is the PI for the OSU CTSA who overcame physical adversity. She was paralyzed from the waist down when she was an intern in medical school and it just didn't stop her. She's really been a trailblazer.

And so both of these women were pivotal and their enthusiasm for driving science and a scientific community is infectious- you really want to be like them.

What got you interested in veterinary oncology? My flippant answer is that when I walked in the door at UC Davis for my first day as an Internal Medicine Resident, I was asked by a receptionist "What is your specialty area?" and I replied: "Internal Medicine." She stated that at UC Davis everyone has a SPECIALTY area (GI, Endocrine, Neurology, etc...). I thought about this and said "I like GI and kidneys, and I have never really managed any oncology so I would love to learn about that." From day 1 at Davis my caseload was 50% oncology from the overflow of the Oncology Service.  The rest is history!  But seriously, veterinary oncology is a specialty of endless discovery, involving both the head and the heart. The science is deep, endlessly fascinating and ever evolving. The human-animal bond aspects and human psychology are humbling and awe-inspiring.  Our animal companions are amazing, gracious teachers in the art of living, and letting go.

Looking at our data, we found that our top 50 oncologists are 80% women. Any thoughts on why? I would speculate that the distribution of veterinary oncology professionals would predict this, but also that these women are adventurous, academically curious, and want to provide their patients with the best possible treatment options available today.

What do you say to young people, especially women, considering a career in veterinary care, especially in veterinary oncology? I tell people that this is the best job in the world, and if it calls to you then you should follow it with everything you have. Veterinary oncology is a truly meaningful career that is very rewarding.

Do you think that in 50 years, canine cancer will have a cure or at least become a chronic disease? I think cancer is too complex a disease process to have a single "cure." I do believe we are improving care every day, making the various entities that fall under the title "cancer" conditions that we can live with, and live well.

Name one inspiring woman in veterinary oncology we should all know about. My inspirations in veterinary oncology include pioneering women.  Sue Cotter is incredibly kind and made great advances in the field during her career. Alice Villalobos and her Pawspice initiative has created space to support patients through excellent end of life care.  Finally, my friend Cheryl London is brilliant and an inspiration to me every day!

What got you interested in veterinary oncology? During my internship program at the Animal Medical Center in NYC, my second required rotation was in Oncology. At that time, my plan was to apply for residency in radiology. Yet after a few weeks on the oncology service, I was hooked. The science was, of course, fascinating and progressive, requiring creativity to find new approaches to an essentially terminal disease. Additionally, the clients were amazing people: anyone who was willing to go that extra mile for their pet were the kind of people I wanted to not only work with, but also hang out with!

Looking at our data, we found that our top 50 oncologists are 80% women. Any thoughts on why? Veterinary Medicine is dominated by women and has been for some time. My vet school class (1987) had 50% women and now the scales have tipped even further. Historically, more men gravitated towards human medicine, I believe due to societal pressures. Now men have an advantage in gaining entry to veterinary school in an attempt to even out the population, which I think is a good thing.

What do you say to young people, especially women, considering a career in veterinary care, especially in veterinary oncology? What a ride! We have come such a long way in our understanding of cancer medicine and our toolbox is ever expanding thanks to start up companies like One Health. There are so many opportunities. Spend time to ensure this is the career for you and then go for it!

Do you think that in 50 years, canine cancer will have a cure or at least become a chronic disease? I truly believe it will be a chronic disease; we already cure a few cancers, but we don't need to eradicate 100% of the cancer cells from the body if we can keep the number of cells below the level of detection preventing those cells from reeking havoc on our physiology.

Name one inspiring woman in veterinary oncology we should all know about. I would say everyone should know about Sheri Siegel, a pioneer in the field of Radiation Oncology when that was male dominated. She truly broke through that glass ceiling and is an amazing entrepreneur as well!

How did you become interested in veterinary oncology? In veterinary school, I was fascinated to learn that cancer was so prevalent and similar across species, that viruses were implicated in some feline cancers, and that cancer cells were immortal. During my internship, I treated several lymphoma patients and those “chemo days” were my favorite days. I had found my passion.

Looking at our data, we found that 80% of our top 50 submitting oncologists were women. Any thoughts on why? Veterinary schools have been graduating more women than men since 1988 and in 2009, the number of female veterinarians outnumbered male veterinarians for the first time.  Our profession has been predominantly female for over a decade. Younger veterinarians are more likely to be female and potentially more aware of newer cancer treatment modalities having more recently graduated from veterinary school.

What do you say to young people, especially women, considering a career in veterinary medicine, particularly in veterinary oncology?         I think it is important to be self-aware about your personal goals as well as your strengths and weakness prior to choosing a career. I recommend choosing a career, not a job. Do something you are passionate about that allows you to be a positive contributor to society. And learn about the career you have chosen: talk to members of the profession, read, volunteer, work, and explore the opportunities. A career in veterinary medicine involves working with people as well as animals and requires the ability to problem solve and communicate effectively.

I think the cost of veterinary education needs to be carefully considered.  The recommendation to borrow no more than 1.5 times your salary makes a veterinary education a poor financial decision for some individuals. Specialists and practice owners typically have higher salaries.  I recommend that woman consider both their professional and family goals and seek employment with individuals who understand and share these goals.  It is possible to have a career in veterinary medicine as well as a family, but it takes flexibility to adapt to the changing needs of the family members.

Do you think that in 50 years, canine cancer will have a cure or at least become a chronic disease? I think that cancer has a good chance of becoming a chronic disease as we become better able to identify specific drivers of disease via mutation analysis and more targeted medications become available. I think cure is possible with early detected cancers.

Name one inspiring woman in veterinary oncology we should all know about. Carolyn Henry is inspiring to women, mothers, authors, students, teachers, leaders and veterinary oncologists. She uses the 24 hours of her day better than most, helping people and pets, all with an amazing sense of humor.                                                                                              

What got you interested in veterinary oncology? I became interested in veterinary oncology as an undergraduate, when my cat Albert was diagnosed with mammary carcinoma.  I was referred to the only oncologist in the city I was living at the time and the experience inspired me to pursue a career as a clinical oncologist.  My motivation was always on helping the pets and people through what for many was a life-changing and emotional experience.  While the science of oncology was truly fascinating for me, the rewarding interactions with the clients was what fed my passion.

Looking at our data, we found that our top 50 submitting oncologists are 80% women. Any thoughts on why? This is an interesting question. Over the years our profession has become predominately female, yet veterinary oncology even historically attracted more female than males.  Some speculate that is because oncology requires more emotionally challenging conversations, something traditionally women have been thought to be more comfortable with.  Further, so much of what we do as clinical oncologists is focused on palliating or delaying disease progression rather than curing our patients, and for some people, that may not feel fulfilling.  I’m not convinced there is a true gender predisposition for the behaviors described above, but certainly that is the stereotype.

What do you say to young people, especially women, considering a career in veterinary care, especially in veterinary oncology? (you can focus on doctors or also include nurses and other support staff). I have found veterinary oncology to be an exceedingly fulfilling profession.  In my old practice, the nurses who worked in the oncology department (we had 4 oncologists in my primary location) were the least stressed and most fulfilled in their roles as well.  The depth of the connection with clients reinforced the importance of the work we were doing every day. It can be emotionally draining, as we know that many of our patients are nearing the end of their life expectancy and the clients require us to be fully present with them as they go through the difficult decisions involved in cancer care. More broadly, veterinary medicine attracts people who love animals. The people that thrive in our profession also care deeply about people.

Do you think that in 50 years, canine cancer will have a cure or at least become a chronic disease?  It is my sincere hope that we’ll be viewing cancer as a chronic disease in humans and animals sooner than 50 years from now.  While some forms of cancer will likely never fit into that description, many of them can and should as our understanding of cancer biology and treatment continue to grow exponentially.

Name one inspiring woman in veterinary oncology we should all know about.  There are so very many to choose from!  Of the three that came to mind immediately, two are already on your list of honorees.  Ruthanne Chun was a year ahead of me during my residency and I learned more from her than anyone else in my career.  Ruthanne is not only incredibly bright and technically skilled, but watching how she communicated with her team, her clients and the primary care veterinarians taught me a tremendous amount about how to be a true clinician.  She has gone on to have a highly successful career, contributing to clinical research, educating many generations of veterinarians and superb oncologists, and leading the teaching hospital at University of Wisconsin.  She is an active philanthropist with a passion for helping underserved populations, in particular, people and pets experiencing homelessness.  Ruthanne will forever have my full respect and gratitude for her contributions to our profession and to me personally.

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