This year’s ESMO Women for Oncology Award goes to Cristiana Sessa. Sessa, who will receive the distinction at the ESMO Congress 2019 taking place in Barcelona from 27 September to 1 October, has dedicated her career in gynaecological oncology to helping women – patients and fellow healthcare professionals alike. In an interview, she looked back and shared her vision for helping the next generation of women climb the ladder in oncology.
You [now] serve as Scientific Clinical Consultant of the Clinical Trial Unit at Ente Ospedaliero Cantonale and Consultant for Gynaecological Cancer at the Oncology Institute of Southern Switzerland (IOSI) in Bellinzona. What do you think is important to share of your experience with the younger generations of women?
I’m now partially retired, having decided to reduce my clinical activity and move into more of a mentoring role. I supervise the work of young physicians taking care of gynaecological cancer patients at IOSI among them many skilled female medical oncologists. I was lucky enough to receive this type of support myself, so I want to give that back to the next generation.
This is also why I was delighted to join the ESMO Women for Oncology Committee. When you’re young, it’s very important to have people who can help you and push you to think bigger. Women of my generation were not taught how to be self-confident – that’s something I was missing for a long time. The Committee’s awareness and support programmes are crucial in this respect.
What do women need to be successful?
First and foremost, they need to have the required competence and expertise in their field. However, they also need to be given the practical possibility to do things like attend meetings and pursue fellowships – unhindered by constraints like childcare, their position at work or other social barriers. Young physicians should have a mentor, someone they can work hand in hand with. Women should also learn to be bold: for example, by engaging themselves in something difficult and proving that they can see it through.
How do you see the future for women in oncology?
We need to keep spreading the message that female oncologists should have the chance to be speakers at meetings, to be visible, and to be represented on scientific committees. We must make heads of departments and other leaders within our system understand that it’s time to promote young people, and also young women. Women, in turn, should be ready and well-prepared to take on those responsibilities, so we need to provide them with the right education.
Do you have a message for the next generation of oncologists?
Try to find out what it is you most like to do, then fix your objectives and priorities and work to achieve them. Develop professional relationships and collaborations with people you admire and feel a connection to. Dedicate yourself, because the biggest achievements usually happen in the early years of your career.
What role has ESMO played in your career?
ESMO has been an integral part of my life and education, and now I feel it’s my duty to make sure things continue in this way: with the same friendly atmosphere and the sense of accomplishing something together. I appreciate this award so much, because it comes from people whom I admire and trust. Being recognised by your peers is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. I am not someone who likes to make myself too visible, but this is a huge encouragement to continue my efforts to help women working in our field.
Who has inspired you in your career?
I have met many women who were a real inspiration to me: one was Eve Wiltshaw, who 40 years ago pioneered the use of carboplatin for the treatment of ovarian cancer patients, working closely in one of the first true translational studies with Hilary Calvert who was developing the drug. Another was Ilora Finlay, a brilliant professor who became my mentor when I was training in palliative medicine at the University of Wales. I also want to mention Dora María Téllez, whom I had the privilege to meet during a six-month stay in Nicaragua when I was working on a cooperative project for the early detection of cervical cancer. She has also been a strong advocate for women’s health and women’s rights.
1 Prof. Cristiana Sessa will receive the ESMO Women for Oncology Award and will present a Keynote Lecture entitled: “Fostering women’s career in oncology: The importance of mentors and women’s support” during the ESMO 2019 Opening Ceremony, Friday 27 September, 11:45-13:30, Barcelona Auditorium