Fatima Cardoso: Oncologist and Advocate, Fighting for Cancer Patients

Director of the Breast Unit at the Champalimaud Clinical Center, Fatima Cardoso has dedicated her life to the care of patients with advanced breast cancer. Here she tells readers why she is so passionate about these ‘forgotten’ patients

  • Date: 24 Mar 2017

This article appeared in the second edition of our new digital magazine, ESMO Perspectives. Get the entire edition by clicking the button below:

ESMO Perspectives Issue 2

Was it always your plan to become an oncologist?

Actually, my original plan was to be a paediatrician. That all changed when I started studying the biology of cancer during my training. Then my best friend developed breast cancer and this had a huge impact on my decision to become involved in this area. In fact, apart from my training, I haven’t really worked in areas outside breast and gynaecological cancers.

Can you tell us what it means to be an oncologist and an advocate?

Fatima Cardoso

I don’t think you can be an oncologist without being an advocate. It is something I am absolutely passionate about. Early breast cancer was where patient advocacy really started and it has been incredibly important in generating advocacy for other cancers. However, advanced disease is a different scenario, and issues applicable to early disease, such as a healthy lifestyle, do not apply and may, in fact, lead to patients feeling responsible for their cancer returning. My role as an advocate really took off 10 years ago, prompted by what was to me the obvious need to provide treatment guidelines and resources for these patients. Studies like the 2006 Silent Voices survey showed a distinct lack of progress in the area, the feelings of shame and guilt associated with patients in 1960s still being very much in existence forty years later. It’s been a long struggle for me but I think the results have been well worth the hard work and sleepless nights. My involvement started with the creation of first an international task force and then the International Consensus Conference for Advanced Breast Cancer, continued with the development of specific treatment ESO-ESMO Guidelines and culminated, most recently, in the launch last year of the ABC Global Alliance – involving healthcare providers, support groups, advocates, organisations and patients – which aims to promote research and advocacy projects around the world. 

What was the most important lesson you learned from your year spent as a Fellow at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in the US?

I went to the US to get more experience in basic research and its application in the translational setting. I came away with a much better idea of what basic research entails and, at the same time, convinced that it wasn’t something I wanted to do! Being away from patients is just not an option for me.

Do you think that knowledge and ability are enough for a successful career or is making connections a vital component?

You can’t treat cancer in isolation anymore; working as a team and treating patients in a multidisciplinary setting are essential. And the same is true for clinical research. As cancers are increasingly subdivided into molecular sub-groups, it is clear that co-operation between centres will be the only way we will obtain sufficient patient numbers for trials. Connections are also a vital part of learning and attending conferences, such as those organised by ESMO, of which I am extremely proud to be a member, provides the perfect environment to improve knowledge and to network.

Who in your life has had the most influence on your career?

Without doubt, my career has been shaped by Martine Piccart, currently Director of Medicine at the Jules Bordet Institute in Brussels, Belgium. I started working with Professor Piccart almost immediately after I finished my training and I stayed at the Institute for ten years. With her incredible knowledge of breast cancer, she taught me how to integrate clinical practice and research. As importantly, she gave me tremendous opportunities: I worked with her on the ground-breaking TRANSBIG international network and the MINDACT trial. Alberto Costa, now Chief Executive Officer of ESO, is my other leading light. Working with his team strengthened my belief that education and research go hand in hand in improving the management of patients.

What other projects do you have in the pipeline?

Something that has caused great excitement in my breast unit is that, hot on the heels of becoming the first in Portugal to receive accreditation in accordance with European Society of Mastology (EUSOMA) guidelines last year, we have just passed this year’s accreditation with distinction! The provision of well-run breast cancer units is fundamental to optimal patient care and I am fighting at a national and European level to see more units achieve EUSOMA accreditation. Also, teaching takes up a huge part of my life and I consider it to be one of the most important contributions I can give to the next generation of young oncologists.

What advice do you have for young oncologists?

Travelling abroad is so important, experiencing how different countries approach research and treatment, and networking. Travel also increases your knowledge about the huge inequities there are in access to cancer treatments around the globe and I believe firmly that the fight for equality is something all young oncologists should become involved in.

What about relaxation, away from work?

I’m very technology driven, so I love messing about with computers and gadgets, and I also like to read and watch movies. When I retire, my plan is to live in Australia, my dream country. It’s beautiful – the colours, the nature – and the people seem so much more relaxed than in Europe! Perhaps it’s no coincidence that my favourite singer is the Australian, Olivia Newton-John.

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