Pulling Back the Curtain: Laurie Sehn, MD

Medical oncologist at the BC Cancer Agency and clinical associate professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada

Dr. Sehn and her family in Vancouver

What was your first job?

My first job ever was at the concession stand of a movie theater. I absolutely loved it. It combined two things that I still love today: popcorn and movies. The theater I worked in had only one screen, and showed only one movie at a time, so I had plenty of time to actually watch the movies between showings. The downside, of course, was that I had to watch the same movie again and again. The summer I was there, the two popular movies were Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Poltergeist – I can’t even count the number of times that I’ve seen those and can still quote all of the lines. I always speak very fondly about that job; now my own kids think that’s the first job they want to have!

When did you decide you wanted to go into medicine?

That decision goes way back, right from the beginning of high school. When I was in elementary school, like most kids, I wanted to be a teacher because I thought it was the greatest job in the world. But as I moved into high school, I became more interested in the sciences but also wanted to help people, so I started to deviate toward the idea of medicine. The wonderful thing about academic medicine is that it really does allow you to blend all of those worlds – teaching, scientific discovery, and patient care. I think it really has been the perfect career choice for me.

What was the path like to where you are today?

It’s been challenging, but exciting each step of the way. After finishing medical school in Montreal, I did my Internal Medicine residency at Columbia in New York, mainly because I always dreamed of living there for a period of time.

Coming from Canada, I experienced immediate culture shock – both in terms of the lifestyle and the medical system. I still remember my first day at work on July 1, when we were told that we wouldn’t have a day off until mid-September; this would not have been possible in Canada. I loved every minute of it though, and as I think back to that time, I can still feel the adrenaline rush that I had the entire time I was there. Following residency, I went to Boston and completed a combined hematology-oncology fellowship, not only because it offered a strong program, but also because it’s a fabulous city. While I was there, my program directors encouraged me to obtain a Master of Public Health degree, which provided the necessary skills for a career in clinical research, as well as a new perspective for thinking about medicine on a population scale.

Finally, when I completed all of my educational training, I returned to Canada to start my first “real” job in Vancouver, which is the one that I have today. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to live and learn in those wonderful places. I would strongly advise all young trainees to take advantage of the capacity to explore new places during your early career, for both your personal and professional growth.

What mentors or teachers have had a major impact on you and your career?

I’ve had so many mentors over the years that it would be impossible to name them all. The mentors who were most influential in my selection of a career path as a clinical researcher in hematology were Joseph Antin, MD, and Robert Soiffer, MD, at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, during my fellowship in Boston. They patiently provided tremendous time and guidance as I undertook several research projects under their direction. Their passion for hematologic malignancies was very obvious and hugely influential on me.

In my current position at the BC Cancer Agency, Joseph Connors, MD, FRCPC, has been my most important mentor. He has selflessly offered advice and guidance throughout my career, and despite being very busy himself, always seems to have the time to help whenever needed. Not only has he served as a role model for my academic career, but after years of casual consultations on difficult patient cases, he has had a strong influence on how I care for my patients.

Is there any advice that you would pass along to early-career hematologists and oncologists?

I work with trainees at all levels and it seems like stress levels have escalated since I was a trainee – or maybe I have just blocked out those memories. The landscape seems to have become more competitive, with more challenges to finding suitable academic positions or acquiring grants. Everyone seems to be concerned about how his or her entire future will unfold, which only adds to the stress level. So, my main advice would be to take a step back and focus on the present. While it’s important to have long-term goals, it’s impossible to see your whole future from where you’re standing. Think about what you can accomplish today and the future will unfold from there. It would be boring if we all knew the end of the story. Look out for and be open to opportunities at all levels, because you never know when a new experience may take you down an unexpected and exciting path.

During an interview, what is your interview tactic to learn the most about a candidate?

When I interview a candidate, I have already spent a fair bit of time beforehand researching his or her academic credentials. So, I think the most important thing is to understand who he or she is as a person, which really comes down to basic character traits and integrity. I like to ask about what he or she does during his or her free time, what he or she values most, and who his or her role models are. Most of what we do on a daily basis is done as part of a team, so it’s very important to select colleagues who share a similar philosophy while bringing different strengths to the team.

How do you keep a healthy work/life balance, and what makes maintaining that balance difficult?

I think this is my biggest and most important challenge; we all have so many obligations and limited time to get them done. I used to think that my years in training would be my busiest, but it seems that each year gets busier than the last. It’s hard to turn down new opportunities, or to say no when asked to contribute. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to only say yes to things you have the time to do well. For me, it’s a matter of prioritization. Without question, my family always comes first. I have three teenage daughters who seem to need me more now than they ever did. My husband is an academic neurologist, balancing both clinical duties and a busy lab. I try to limit my commitments so that I’m able to create the right balance between my personal and professional life.

However, it’s not only the amount of time you devote to each, but the quality of the time that matters. As you get bogged down with deadlines and numerous work-related commitments, it’s very easy to spend time at home thinking about what you should be doing at work. I have learned to try to separate the two, so that when I’m at home I can be in the moment. Once again, it comes down to focusing on the present. I think it’s also important to continuously evaluate how to improve your efficiency to maximize your time. I’ve had a long-standing goal to improve my typing skills, but unfortunately there is still room for improvement.

I credit my parents for instilling me with strong family values. I grew up in Montreal, Canada, with one brother. Both my parents prioritized family over career. My father was a corporate businessman and my mother was a homemaker. She sacrificed her own career for family and was a very important role model for me. It was very important to my parents that my brother and I have all the opportunities we could – especially with respect to education. As I move forward in my own life, I have never forgotten that degree of dedication, and I try to achieve that same level of giving. My brother and I selected very different career paths; he is a Chief Financial Officer for a company in the United States, but we remain very close despite our different interests and the distance.

In a typical day, what is your rose and what is your thorn?

The rose in my day always relates to human connections.

The time I spend with my family is the best part of my day, but I also value the time I spend with my patients and their families. As an oncologist, it is an absolute privilege to be able to support people through very stressful times. Progress in oncology has led to many more success stories; there is nothing more rewarding than hearing those.

The thorn in my day is excessive emails. When I first started working at the Cancer Agency, email didn’t exist. People either spoke face-to-face, spoke directly on the phone, or solved their own problems. While email has made communication more efficient, it has also made it less personal. I particularly dislike the “reply all” feature.

What do you like to do outside of work?

After years of living in major cities along the East coast, moving to the Pacific Northwest has converted me into a nature lover. Most of my hobbies tend to revolve around the outdoors. I live one block away from a nature park. At the end of a stressful day, running along the paths of this stunning rainforest immediately relaxes me. I also enjoy cycling, hiking, or simply beach-combing. Living close to Whistler Mountain is a real luxury. I transitioned from skiing to snowboarding later in life and must admit I have become somewhat obsessed with it.

I also enjoy Bikram yoga. One of my proudest accomplishments was that during a recent sabbatical, I completed the 30-day challenge: 30 yoga classes in 30 days. I think this was the peak of my flexibility.

Another one of my favorite hobbies is cooking. The Food Network has turned my children into food critics, and we all enjoy the challenge of cooking together.

What superpower would you like to have, and why?

Time travel. I would want the opportunity to go back in time and experience some historical events firsthand – and perhaps have the opportunity to change some of them. Of course, I’d also all love to jump forward to see where everything is headed.

If you won the lottery, what is the first thing you would do?

When you ask people that question, I think it’s really a question of, “Would you still be doing the job you’re doing now?” That’s a question I have thought about over time, and, undoubtedly, I would keep doing what I’m doing. I have been fortunate enough to find a career I really love. Obviously, I would alter some of my work obligations, and probably only focus on the things I like to do best. I would definitely take some time off to reflect on my priorities and spend some concentrated family time. Perhaps we’d spend a few months in Nantucket, which has always been one of my favorite places.

This might seem superfluous given your response, but is there any other career you could see yourself in?

I think there are many careers I could have considered, since we all have multiple personalities. Photographer for National Geographic, professional hockey player, and a food critic for The New York Times would be great jobs. In addition to these, I have always been interested in the field of advertising. Television advertising is something that I would have wanted to pursue. I see advertising as a reflection of our society, as well as a medium to change it. I’m still fascinated by it.

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