First female chief of breast surgery at Duke named one of Time’s ‘Most Influential Americans’

March 26, 2018 GMT

Named one of Time magazine’s Most Influential Americans, Dr. Shelley Hwang is changing the way the world treats breast cancer.

Hwang is also the first female Chief of Breast Surgery at Duke University Hospital, but she said she hopes to inspire others to find their passion and then succeed.

“It’s very much an honor. But I think, for every person that’s on the list, there are hundreds of others who could have easily qualified and have done equally as interesting, fascinating and rewarding work.”

The breast cancer surgeon, researcher, professor and mother of three said she believes anyone is capable of achieving if motivated by the right things.

She decided to pursue medicine in her junior year of college and found her passion for oncology and surgery.

“Really the theme of my life is just being open to unexpected doors opening,” she said.

For 20 years, she’s been motivated by one main research question – to treat or to observe?

“The disease that I’m interested in is called DCIS,” she said. “The reason that I was interested in it from an early stage in my career is that even though it’s not quite cancer yet, we treat it as if it’s cancer. And so it’s a little bit hard to know whether women benefit from that or not.”

Ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) occurs when abnormal or cancerous-looking cells are found in the breast duct, often called stage 0 cancer. DCIS accounts for about 20 percent of all new breast cancer cases diagnosed from mammogram screenings.

“Clearly if it’s on the path to becoming cancer than you’ve helped her avoid that bullet, on the other hand if she has the kind of DCIS that never becomes cancer, then all you’re doing is harming the patient by treating them,” Hwang said.

The treatment can include heavy radiation or even double mastectomies, while waiting might mean the cancerous cells could spread.

Hwang said it was the status quo for doctors to aggressively treat any sign of cancer until a patient questioned her 20 years ago.

“For me, it was a patient that really got me thinking along those lines and really challenged me about ’Well is this really the only thing that I can do? Are there other options?” she said.

Hwang is now the principal investigator on a $13 million clinical trial to get her patients the answer, something she said was always her dream.

She said her success today is a combination of hard work and luck. When she started her residency, there was no template for female doctors.

“When I was going through my training, mentors who were women were kind of like zebras,” Hwang said. “It was really uncommon to have a female surgeon who could be a mentor or a role model, so a lot of women in my generation who went into surgery had to figure it out on our own.”

In 2018, an entire generation of female physicians are looking to trailblazers like Hwang, who said she feels a strong responsibility to support them on issues like pay equality and promotion.

“I encourage the women that I mentor to not be immediately, viscerally angry about these disparities but to work to understand where these disparities come from and then to try to look for ways to narrow those gaps where disparities exist,” she said.

While she said there was more discrimination and disparity decades ago, Hwang said the fundamentals of what helped her in the workplace is what she tells younger female doctors.

“I think one of the things I found very helpful was to not show up for myself, but to show up for my patients, to show up for my faculty, and I think for women in particular that’s an incredibly empowering position,” she said.

Hwang said everyone can live by that message.

“So if you want to have any aspirations for anything that’s going to make a difference in the world, you need to show up for the people you care about,” she said.