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International Women’s Day: An interview with Dr Martine Piccart

Intro text: 

- 8 March 2018 -

Every year on  March 8, women are put in the forefront thanks to the International Women’s Day. This year, gender parity is the central theme of the #PressforProgress campaign. The World Economic Forums' 2017 Global Gender Gap report showed that the gender gap is widening and it was estimated that it will take over 200 years to close this gap.

Although the situation is improving, the world of Oncology is not exempt from this gap, especially when it comes to positions of leadership. This is a subject close to Dr Martine Piccart’s heart and it is why she established the Women for Oncology programme, while she was president of the European Society for Medical Oncology (ESMO) (2012-2013).

Dr Piccart has broken many barriers in the world of oncology and, in this interview, she gives us a glimpse of how she achieved these milestones:

What were your career steps? Who were the people who most influenced you along the way?

My father was a gynaecologist and saw patients at home, so I was always aware and admirative of his work. When I was 12 years old, my great-uncle was treated for colon cancer at the Institut Jules Bordet in Brussels. When I visited him, at that moment, something happened. Something about the hospital impressed me and, when I started my medicine studies, I already had in mind to do oncology. Later, after university and as I was about to start a medical fellowship in New York, a friend’s mother died of ovarian cancer. On top of all of this, my own mother survived two bouts of breast cancer — giving me, my three daughters and my four grand-daughters a relatively high risk of the same disease. To me, this is a very powerful incentive to keep continuing the fight to find a cure for breast cancer.

I did a two-year fellowship in New York, during which I had the honour and privilege of working with Professor Franco Muggia and James Speyer at the New York University Medical Centre. This involved fewer clinical duties, more time for real research and opportunities for travel. It completely opened my mind to new ideas, and I got to know many oncologists personally, which has facilitated collaboration ever since. It was pivotal to my career, a real enrichment. Today, at Institut Jules Bordet (IJB), I try to offer young oncologists the same opportunities.

In 1985 I started working for Professor J. Klastersky, then head of internal medicine at IJB, who gave me the freedom to develop my priorities.

My great mentor in the early years, Marcel Rozencweig, was himself a pupil of Henri Tagnon, founder of the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC), originally based at IJB. Emanuel Vanderschueren, a later EORTC president, also impressed me.

Do you have any advice for young women starting in Oncology?

My number one piece of advice to young oncologists is to leave their institution and to spend two or three years abroad.

What type of obstacles were you faced with as a female oncologist?

What I found the most challenging was to establish myself in a predominantly male professional environment. You must prove yourself every step of the way.

When I was appointed president of the EORTC in 2006 and later of ESMO in 2012, I was the first women to hold these positions. And this is only a few years ago. Women still have a long way to go, but perceptions are slowly changing and I’m positive that my daughters will find an easier professional path.

What needs to change / How can we improve the situation?

Women need to share their experiences more, identify obstacles and find solutions themselves.

How do you maintain a work / family life balance?

It hasn’t always been easy to keep a healthy balance between family and work. With a husband and three daughters, we have often had to come up with creative solutions. I have a fantastic husband who’s supported me throughout my entire career and who’s given me the room, opportunity and motivation to pursue a career in oncology.

It is during my time at university that I met my husband, Michael Gebhart, a fellow medical student and violinist. He was looking for someone to practise music with and, as I am a passionate piano player, I was introduced to him and together we staged concerts to raise money for cancer research. Our three daughters have inherited the musical gene, particularly the youngest one, who is very talented and studies singing at “la Chapelle Musicale Reine Elizabeth” in Brussels.