The Surgical Scientist

People are fascinated with the word surgical. The military calls a highly targeted attack with precision bombing, a surgical strike. Surgical air implies air purification to the highest possible standard. Any seamstress, orator, manufacturer, or sushi chef might employ the word surgical to convey the highest degree of precision in what they do.

As a surgeon, I don’t use the word “surgical” much outside of my trade, and when I say, “Surgical Scientist,” I’m not talking about precision. I am talking about surgeons who do scientific research. The public doesn’t know; a worrisome trend has been going on for decades. Fewer surgeons are doing basic science research (click here to read more). This is unfortunate, especially as it pertains to cancer research.

There are many well thought out approaches to trying to understand and treat cancer in new ways. Many of these innovations come from oncologists and Ph.D. scientists. However, many of them have either never been in an operating room or were only in one during their early training years. They don’t know what cancer actually looks like or how it feels, when it’s still in the body growing and spreading. They don’t see with their own eyes or feel with their own hands the invasion into adjacent organs, or the enlarged blood vessels feeding the cancer, and lymph nodes engorged with multiplying cancer cells.

There is something visceral aobut the experience of trying to remove a cancer from a living person. It colors the surgeon’s lenses and opens a unique perspective on how to interpret everything that is seen and contemplated in the laboratory. Almost every experiment and treatment that I carry out on my cancer-bearing mice is done with the question going through my mind, “So how would I do this same thing in a human patient with cancer?”

I may not be able to change the environmental pressures that are making surgeon scientists an endangered species, but I can at least show young individuals interested in surgery what it means to be simply curious and inspire them to use their skills not just in the operating room, but equally important, at the laboratory bench.

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