Sarah S. Donaldson, MD, FASCO, Honored With Inaugural Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Award

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To me, a good mentor is one who is accepted by their students, who likes being with the students, and who works hard to find opportunities for them. There is nothing so gratifying as to witness the success of those you mentor.
— Sarah S. Donaldson, MD, FASCO

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Sarah S. Donaldson, MD, FASCO, of Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, is the recipient of the Inaugural Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Award. Throughout her decades-long career, Dr. Donaldson has mentored countless trainees and young oncologists, providing them with both personal and professional guidance.

The Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Award was created to recognize an extraordinary female leader in oncology who is a role model and mentor and who demonstrates a commitment to the professional development of female colleagues.

“Passing skills on to the next generation of oncologists is one of the most valuable assets that we have to assist future oncologists and the patients they treat,” said Julie M. Vose, MD, MBA, FASCO, 2015–2016 ASCO President and Co-Chair of the Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Award Selection Group. “This new award is one way to acknowledge a woman who has dedicated her time, energy, and expertise to enriching the careers of those around her for years to come.”

Dr. Donaldson accepted the award on June 4 during the 2016 ASCO Annual Meeting. She was pleased to see an award recognizing mentors. “Oftentimes education isn’t appreciated,” she said. “A mentorship award serves as recognition of those who care about teaching others, and it is wonderful to have those people who you trained thank you [for your efforts].”

Recognizing education is one of the main goals of this new award, according to Sandra M. Swain, MD, FACP, FASCO, of the Washington Cancer Institute, MedStar Washington Hospital Center, and Chair of the Women Who Conquer Cancer program. “In creating this award, our Women Who Conquer Cancer Advisory Group sought to recognize not only an accomplished leader but also a successful teacher, mentor, and role model who is actively nurturing some of the best and brightest minds in oncology. I can say with confidence that Dr. Donaldson embodies all that we envisioned,” Dr. Swain said.

Learning the Importance of Mentorship

Dr. Donaldson worked as a nurse’s aide prior to earning a nursing degree. She began her nursing career at the Oregon Health Sciences Center, working for ­William Fletcher, MD, a surgeon who cared for patients with cancer before medical oncology was a recognized specialty.

Dr. Fletcher was an early mentor to Dr. Donaldson; he was the person who suggested that she attend medical school and recommended oncology as her career path. “My whole life and subsequent journey is because Dr. Fletcher opened the door for me,” Dr. Donaldson said. “Although I was reluctant and insecure, Dr. Fletcher pushed me through that door and encouraged me to think about things beyond my imagination.”

This formative relationship cemented the importance of mentorship to Dr. Donaldson. “Without a mentor to encourage and support me, [my career] never would have happened,” she said.

Dr. Fletcher was the first mentor to Dr. Donaldson but certainly not the last. She credits several early leaders at Stanford with serving as her mentors, including Saul Rosenberg, MD, ­FASCO, as well as her prior department chairs Henry Kaplan, MD; ­Malcolm Bagshaw, MD; and Rich Hoppe, MD. Dr. Donaldson attributes her accomplishments to these doctors.

“If I have had any successes in life, it is because of the Stanford culture and environment and the mentors I had. That’s why I feel so strongly about mentorship,” she said.

The Joy of Mentoring

Dr. Donaldson’s career has expanded along with the growth of the oncology field. She is an authority on pediatric radiation oncology and has developed innovative protocols and treatments for pediatric Hodgkin lymphoma and rhabdomyosarcoma. Her clinical research has focused on the late effects of cancer and its treatment.

Dr. Donaldson also has a storied career as an educator and has received numerous awards recognizing her accomplishments, including Stanford Dean’s Medal, the Henry S. Kaplan Memorial Prize for Teaching at Stanford, the Richard T. Hoppe Leadership Award at Stanford, and the Leadership Luminary Award from the American College of Radiology.

Dr. Donaldson credits her first mentor, Dr. Fletcher, for her career, and she has continued this cycle of mentorship; many of the oncologists Dr. ­Donaldson has mentored now credit her with their career. “I am one of those very fortunate women who feel that I owe my career to Dr. Donaldson,” said Suzanne L. Wolden, MD, FACR, of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “She taught me all I know about pediatric radiation oncology, the conduct of clinical research, and building an academic career.”

Dr. Donaldson cares deeply about her trainees and said, “To me, a good mentor is one who is accepted by their students, who likes being with the students, and who works hard to find opportunities for them. There is nothing so gratifying as to witness the success of those you mentor. When your students find happiness in their professional activities, the happiness is even greater for [you as their] mentor because you feel like you played a little part in it.” ■

Originally printed in the ASCO Daily News. © American Society of Clinical Oncology. “Dr. Sarah S. Donaldson Honored With Inaugural Women Who Conquer Cancer Mentorship Award.” June 2016. All rights reserved.