From the Journals

Difficulty fitting family into career: Female oncologists



Female physicians often spend their child-bearing years in medical training and developing their careers, and this can create problems.

In a survey of just over 1,000 female oncologists, 95% said their career plans were at least somewhat associated with the timing of when to start a family.

The most striking finding was that one third of respondents had miscarried and another one third reported difficulty with infertility that required fertility counseling and/or treatment.

One third reported experiencing discrimination during pregnancy, and another third said they experienced discrimination for taking maternity leave, and having more than one child increased the likelihood of this.

The most common negative factor associated with family planning was long work hours and heavy workload (66.6%),

These findings suggest there are systemic changes needed not only in the healthcare setting but in society as a whole around women in the workplace and their choices of childbearing, say the authors.

The study was published online in JAMA Network Open and led by Anna Lee MD, MPH, from the department of radiation oncology, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston.

In an invited commentary, Mona Saleh, MD, and Stephanie Blank, MD, from the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, suggest that cultural changes are needed that go beyond women in medicine.

“These cultural values are so deeply pervasive (one could also say invasive) that they affect even these most educated and wealthy professional women, such as those who participated in this survey,” the editorialists write.

“[The researchers] advocate for early education on assisted reproductive technology (ART) risks, benefits, and success rates, but this is not getting at the underlying issue: Pregnancy discrimination and unfair distribution of childbearing responsibilities are a reflection of a larger problematic culture rather than an issue specific to women in medicine,” they add.

Survey details

The survey comprised a novel 39-item questionnaire distributed to 1,004 U.S. female oncologists from May 7 to June 30, 2020, via email and social media channels.

Most respondents (84.4%) were married, and 71% were currently working full-time.

About one-third (35%) worked in radiation oncology, another third (34.3%) in medical oncology, 18.4% in surgical oncology, and 9.1% in pediatric oncology.

A total of 768 respondents (76.5%) had children, and of these, 415 (41.3%) first gave birth during postgraduate training and 275 (27.4%) gave birth in years 1-5 as an attending physician.

Of all respondents who had been pregnant, approximately two-thirds (65.7%) had some type of pregnancy complication. About one-third of respondents (31.7%) reported having experienced a miscarriage after a confirmed pregnancy; of those, 61.6% reported one miscarriage, while the remainder had two or more miscarriages (38.4%).

Approximately one-third (31.4%) of respondents reported difficulty with infertility that required fertility counseling and/or treatment.

The questionnaire also asked about assisted reproductive technology, and 164 participants (16.3%) reported the use of fertility medications, and 53 (5.3%) reported cryopreservation of eggs. Nearly 13% reported the use of intrauterine insemination and 13.2% reported the use of in vivo fertilization. Among those who experienced fertility concerns, 36.6% (232 of 634) reported facing financial burdens because of fertility or pregnancy that was in some way associated with their career choice.

When asked on the survey if fertility preservation should be discussed with women during medical school and/or residency, 65.7% of respondents stated that it should.

However, the editorialists suggest that “encouraging formal and directed education regarding the infertility risks specifically toward female physicians (which Lee et al. recommend) could be perceived as a blanket recommendation that it is best for women in medicine to delay childbearing and pursue ART.”

“Medical schools and residency and fellowship training programs should instead focus their energy on creating a framework and culture that normalizes conception during these points in training while also subsidizing and supporting trainees and physicians who prefer to use ART and delay fertility until after training,” they suggest.

The editorialists also emphasized that women may choose to become pregnant at any point during the years that it takes to go from being a medical student to resident/fellow to attending physician, and they should be supported by their workplace on their decisions.

The study was funded by grants from National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute Cancer Center.

Dr. Lee and coauthors reported no relevant financial relationships. Dr. Blank reported receiving grants from AstraZeneca, Aravive, Akesobio, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, and Seattle Genetics outside the submitted work. Dr. Saleh reports no relevant financial relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on

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