There aren’t many people who can juggle being on call virtually 24/7 with a super busy family life (10-year-old Grace already wants to be a doctor, too), and distance runs for a bit of me-time, and do it with such genuine grace and humour. Oncologist Jennifer Westrup puts her balancing act success down to an awesome support network (though her own nuclear’s back in Minnesota, USA) and the fact that she loves her job. Spending time with her, you quickly realise how lucky her patients are to have such a keen intellect and incredibly kind person fighting their corner.
Westrup changed career at 30, leaving pharmaceutical science behind for the frontline and the States for UCD. Weeks before she was due to go back to America (the Mayo Clinic is only down the road from where she grew up), she met her now-husband at the Trinity Ball. She did make it back to the States for a while – finishing her residency at Boston University Medical Center – but she returned to Ireland five years ago with two children as well as a husband in tow. Now, she’s based at The Beacon, Dublin and 100% committed to delivering cutting edge treatments there.
Jennifer or Jenny? Jenny (…and Hey Mom!, Dr. Westrup, Aunty Jen among other names…)
Why did you change careers and when? What was the catalyst?
After graduating with a degree in Biology from Wake Forest University, I had an opportunity to join a large multi-national where I worked in emerging markets and vaccines. I enjoyed the work, traveled a lot, and loved having responsibility and being independent in my 20’s. I continued doing graduate courses in genetics while I was working, just because I was interested and wasn’t sure what I would do longterm. Ultimately, while working and studying I found that I was most interested in patients and in science and decided that I needed a career placing those things first. Big hesitation – do I give up my career, paycheck, health insurance and become a student again? One of my colleagues at work, said ‘don’t worry about what age you are now, you are going to be 40 one day. Do you want to be a 40 year old doctor or a 40 year old businesswoman, a 40 year old author (or a 40 year old whatever, you fill in the blank)? So, after 5 years of working, I left a career on the upswing and I went to Medical School.
What’s a Minnesota girl doing in Ireland?
I went on the ONLY blind date of my life and ended up meeting my Irish husband. Marrying him was truly the best decision ever.
Why oncology? How different is the landscape for patients now than when you started? What have you learned from your patients?
Oncology is the part of medicine, for me, that really combines science and art and humanity. In my career there have already been several scientific life-changing breakthroughs that are now a part of my every day practice. Seriously, one year you have nothing further to offer a patient with a terminal cancer, and the next year a breakthrough drug clears the approval process and your patients are SURVIVING. It is unbelievable at times, and motivating. It makes me look forward to the next oncology conference, and it makes me find the time to keep up. It takes dedicated scheduling as my reading time is often around 5:45 am, and conferences are usually on family time including nights and weekends.
There is also an art in getting to know a person with cancer. Experience and understanding don’t occur on day one of a doctor patient relationship, they develop over time. This guides management – when to treat aggressively, and when to consider quality of life over treatment aggression.
The human element in oncology is what gets me out of bed every day. We are all, at our core, people who live this life and who rarely think about our mortality. People with cancer are suddenly confronted with the unexpected, the un-discussed, and the unwanted reality that we are not permanent. The way many of my patients cope, carry on, and choose to live (and live well!) is simply extraordinary.
How many patients do you treat every year?
Patients per year?….I just try to take one at a time.
How do you stay so positive?
Staying positive can be a struggle…for anyone. As I get older I think that perhaps I am more resilient than positive? Or perhaps a better way to say that is I am resilient with a good sense of humor. I think resilience is a little appreciated quality. Certainly in my career and in my life, not everything is going to go perfectly. Sometimes putting on a positive face is just not appropriate. This is where resilience kicks in, at times you just have to weather a storm. Being positive on the journey doesn’t hurt, but I think we spend too much time trying to ‘stay positive’ and not enough time digging into the experience.
Is your work/life balance hard to maintain? What do you do to maintain it?
To every woman reading this: the term work/life balance is an oxymoron! I think the representation of perfectly balanced professional women who are stunning cooks and homemakers, who have genius polite children, and who start each day with meditation and yoga is an urban myth. Well, at least I have never been able to swing it all effortlessly. I suggest that we shouldn’t strive for some perfect balance, instead – embrace chaos, expect change, be resilient, keep trying to define who you are in every situation, and above all maintain your sense of humor! Also, exercise whenever you can. It clears the head.
Three Fairy Godmother Wishes
1.) I wish for good health and an appreciation of good health, for everyone.
2.) I wish I could fly.
3.) I wish for another warm summer for all of Ireland.
If you want to make a donation to the Irish Cancer Society you can call +353 (0)1 2310 500 or visit here.
Photography by Ailbhe O’Donnell. This article was originally published on the 12th of October, 2014.