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Interview with Breast Surgeon Dr. Dahlia Sataloff

Dahlia Sataloff, MD, FACS, smiles in the operating room.

Dahlia Sataloff, MD, FACS, is a Professor of Clinical Surgery and the Chair of Surgery at Pennsylvania Hospital. She specializes in endocrine and oncologic surgery in Penn Medicine’s breast cancer program. To learn more about her work, career and motivations, read our interview with Dr. Sataloff below:

Why did you decide to become a physician, and how did you choose surgery?  

I wanted to work in science and have an impact on people. Medicine offers both. Surgery fits with the way I approach things. I am very goal-oriented, and I like to fix things. Being able to work with my hands was important to me. I am an accomplished pianist so it felt natural to do procedures. Surgery is technically very gratifying. 

At the time, it was very rare for women to go into a surgical field. Only about 2 percent of surgical residents were women. I started out practice in general surgery but since patients were looking for female breast surgeons, that part of my practice grew, and ultimately became my focus.

Who encouraged you to pursue a career in medicine? 

My father was very encouraging. He wanted me to do something interesting with my life and be able to support myself, which was unusual for his generation.

Did anyone discourage you, and if so, how did you handle it?

I experienced some pushback in the early years from surgeons who felt that women didn’t belong in medicine, let alone surgery. Rather than get discouraged, I worked even harder and did a good job. In my career, I have been selective in the issues I’ve taken on.  I try to focus on what’s really important, where I can have an impact.

How does it feel to hold this leadership position at Pennsylvania Hospital?

There are not many chairs of surgery who are women. I am the first woman to hold the position at Pennsylvania Hospital. It’s important for younger women to see women in leadership roles. This is part of why I considered the position.

Of what accomplishment are you most proud?

I’m very proud of my children. They are great kids. One of them is in medical school, and the other works as a senior business analyst for a medical center.

What, if any, challenges have you faced in your career?

A surgical career is very demanding. When I trained, it was the norm to work more than 100 hours/week or be up for several days in a row. Being a woman in the surgical field was challenging at times as well, but I choose to focus on the positive. I always see the glass as half full.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of practicing medicine?

Taking care of my patients has been a great source of satisfaction for me. I feel like I make a difference in people’s lives.

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to look back on your life and feel like you made a difference for people. Every once in a while, I feel like I did something different than someone else would have done. It makes me feel like all the training and all the hard work were worthwhile.

What has changed since you started practicing medicine?

It’s very exciting to see all the changes in cancer management. When I compare what we were doing at the beginning of my career to what we are doing now, it’s a sea change of difference. We’re much better at curing patients and giving them better quality of life. Our best results five years ago are our worst results now.”

What do you enjoy about your job?  

I enjoy coming to work. I enjoy the patients and the professional relationships with other doctors. Breast oncology allows me to work collaboratively with physicians and professionals in a variety of different fields. I am constantly learning from my colleagues.

It’s always been important to me to learn and grow. I don’t want to do exactly what I did five years ago. I want to be on the cutting edge. In order to do that, I need to work with people who know more about their fields than I do. It’s one of the wonderful things about Pennsylvania Hospital. We have a rich professional environment.

What do you tell young women who are considering medical school, or already there?

It is a wonderful career. You feel like your work is valuable, like you’ve done something meaningful. I tell young people to think about what they can do, their passion, and how they will support themselves.

Medicine is demanding. You have to be willing to work hard. Women especially need to think through how it will fit into their lives. They may want to start a family at the same time that they are ramping up their careers. It is all doable.

How would you like to see the medical community better support women in medicine?

We need to do more to promote women in leadership roles. Many women start off well then don’t get as far at the academic level or in leadership positions. There are multiple reasons for this. Women advocate for themselves differently, or may not consider opportunities. There are still gender equity issues in compensation that need to be addressed — equal pay for equal work.

Penn Medicine was recently recognized by Forbes Magazine as the second best employer for women. What is special about Penn and Pennsylvania Hospital?

Penn Medicine is a wonderful place to work. Penn is a great employer. I love being able to teach and mentor staff and fellows. This is why I’m at a teaching hospital. I’m not a researcher but, if I were, there are so many resources here. There are tremendous opportunities to be collaborative and innovative at Penn.

What do you do when you're not working?  

Music is my major interest outside of medicine. I am an accomplished pianist, and my husband is a singer (and a doctor). We’ve collaborated on musical endeavors and performed together. I’ve also done concerts on my own. I also like to run and stay fit.

About This Blog

The Focus on Cancer blog discusses a variety of cancer-related topics, including treatment advances, research efforts and clinical trials, nutrition, support groups, survivorship and patient stories.

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