One of the most difficult parts of a cancer patient’s experience is the beginning. A cancer diagnosis often leads to feelings of fear, helplessness, anger and loneliness. In the early stages, patients must put their trust in their cancer care team, and University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians) surgical oncologist Jane Hui, MD, takes this responsibility seriously.

“The patients I treat are experiencing the most difficult time in their life,” she says. “I try to help educate patients and empower them with different choices that they can make in terms of their treatment.”

Dr. Hui is a surgical oncologist who treats patients with soft tissue cancers like melanoma and breast cancer. She is one of the first physicians her patients meet with when they begin their cancer treatment, and she says that acknowledging their fear and anxiety is an important step in the healing process.

“I definitely think acknowledging that and calling it out is really helpful because sometimes we, as physicians, come in, and we have a plan to discuss and patients are left in a whirlwind of information,” Dr. Hui explains. “But I think that giving the emotion a name and letting them know that it’s totally normal is important.”

Having the opportunity to form relationships with her patients is one of Dr. Hui’s favorite parts of her job. She chose the oncology subspecialty of surgery because she saw in her surgical training how many surgeons meet their patients on an emergency basis and don’t really have the chance to get to know them.

“I thought about the different types of patients I would have and the care that I would provide, and I thought surgical oncology would be the most rewarding to me,” she says.

As a faculty member at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Dr. Hui encourages learners to fully embrace their required rotations because they never know what important pieces of information or experience they might take away. There is so much to be gained from observing different physicians and understanding the different fields of medicine.

“The way you interact with patients, working on a team. These things are all universal,” Dr. Hui says. “In particular, I saw all of the teamwork involved in cancer care as a trainee, participating in tumor conferences and discussions.”

Multidisciplinary care, working with physicians of different specialties, is crucial in cancer care. These often include medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, radiologists and plastic surgeons. 

Dr. Hui says, “This is something that I really enjoy, working with others who are also experts in caring for patients with cancer, but from their specialty perspective.”

This also leads back to how Dr. Hui can empower patients when they first get diagnosed with cancer. 

“I try to give patients a sense of the overall plan from a team effort, not just the specific details of surgery, at that first visit because they have so many questions and there are so many unknowns from their perspective. So of course, for the trainees, having an understanding about what other people in your team do is therefore so important.”

Dr. Hui feels fortunate to have had mentors in several different specialties and credits them for showing her how to protect her mental health while still being present for patients.

“Cancer is obviously a really heavy subject,” she emphasizes. “I think we tend to compartmentalize and to normalize difficult discussions. I kind of have to separate myself from everything being very serious and dire in order for me to be effective in speaking to patients about their treatment. But certainly, when away from patients, giving myself space to name and give weight to this seriousness is important for my own coping too.”