My Interesting Job: Surgeon

Professor Christina Fotopoulou is an oncology consultant at King Edward VII’s Hospital in London. With a job that involves performing surgery to help treat some of the most complex women’s cancers out there – from ovarian to cervical and even breast reconstruction – here she tells us what made her want to get into the profession and what it takes to succeed.
VICTOR TORRES/STOCKSY UNITED

My principal job involves treating advanced women’s cancers. Based at the independent, charitable hospital King Edward VII’s, as well as in the West London Gynae Cancer Centre in Imperial College London NHS Trust, I’m also the clinical director of women’s health.

We run specialist centres for gynaecology, including a specialist gynaecological diagnostic centre with a special focus on diagnostics, oncology, the treatment of severe endometriosis, and breast health including triple assessment breast screening, reconstructive and oncoplastic breast surgery, and fertility.

Both my parents are doctors, so I knew I wanted to go into medicine from an early age. Growing up, I was constantly around doctors and the industry, which made me keen to follow in my parents’ footsteps. During my first year of medical school, I took an elective course in a women’s cancer ward. It made me realise I wanted to work in oncology and treat cancer patients. But first, I trained in obstetrics and gynaecology at the Charité University Hospital of Berlin, where I also completed my PhD and sub-specialised in gynaecological oncology.   

I began operating early in my training. It was initially done under supervision, and only on more straightforward cases, before I worked my way up to the kinds of complex cases I treat today. For me, surgery feels like my safe space. It’s what I’ve been trained to do and I’m able to completely focus on the patient in front of me – it always feels like a big honour.

As a consultant, I lead various teams in all aspects of my role. This includes during surgery, when I lead the surgical team, on the ward where I direct a variety of healthcare professionals and in my research, where I instruct students and other researchers. In my position as clinical director I also work with specialists across other areas of women’s health including the talented consultants who lead King Edward VII’s specialist centre for severe endometriosis and its dedicated Breast Health Centre.   

Work starts early for us. The first thing I do is check in on my patients at the hospital. I run medical checks, see if anything has changed during the night and also ask them how they are feeling. It's very important to ensure the patients in your care feel as at ease as possible. I then go into theatre – it’s what I have trained to do all my life and every time I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a position to be helping my patients. After theatre, I speak to the patients’ families to discuss how the procedure went. I then have my outpatient clinic where I see my patients who are not staying on the ward. Following this, I leave the hospital and head to Hammersmith to do research.

For me, surgery feels like my safe space. It’s what I’ve been trained to do and I’m able to completely focus on the patient in front of me – it always feels like a big honour.

The best part of my job is being able to tell women the surgery went well. Another great aspect is seeing patients years later for routine check-ups and seeing they’re still doing well and have been able to go back to their lives. 

A more challenging part, naturally, is when treatments aren’t working. As a doctor I am trained on how to handle it but nevertheless, it’s a difficult responsibility. It’s always a very sad moment explaining this to a patient. However, even when you’ve reached the limitations of medicine, you’re often still able to have a positive impact on their life by providing the best possible support.

As a surgeon, you’re constantly learning. It means there’s never a single moment where you feel like you’ve made it. However, my team and I often feel we’ve accomplished what we wanted to after every successful surgery – or when we get to see a former patient still cancer free and living their life to the fullest. I also get a great sense of accomplishment in my role as a researcher when we make a breakthrough. We then get to see doctors using that discovery to make a tangible difference to patients’ lives.

To be a good doctor you have to be a great communicator. You also have to know how to talk to patients and make them feel at ease. It’s also a very collaborative job, so you have to be able to communicate with other medical professionals like doctors and nurses and work together to make sure patients are receiving the best care. You also have to have a good sense of the limits. You need to know when to push the boundaries but also when an end point has been reached.

A more challenging part of the job is when treatments aren’t working. As a doctor I am trained on how to handle it but nevertheless, it’s a difficult responsibility.

You also have to be completely dedicated to the profession. The job requires a lot of personal sacrifices, and you may feel like you’re essentially giving away part of yourself. Only get into it if you love it and are 100% committed to it. The main skill I rely on time and again is being an effective communicator. I really can’t emphasise that enough.  

Personally, I’ve not experienced discrimination as a woman in this industry. Both of my parents were doctors, which instilled in me the idea that both men and women not only have the choice to be doctors but can be very successful at it, too. It goes without saying that the medical sector is strengthened by its diversity.

One of the biggest challenges is the constant change in the science. You’re constantly having to adapt your knowledge and reimagine the treatment you can provide. We’re still making strides in cancer care, which means the limits get smaller every year – but new ones also emerge.

Weekends are spent with my two children. They’re two and five, so many of my days off right now are spent drawing dinosaurs! I also love travelling. Pre-pandemic, I’d travel around the world for conferences as a member of the European Society of Gynaecological Oncology. I’m really looking forward to taking part in these in person again.

The one thing I’d tell people about oncology is there’s a lot of hope. People often see oncology and advanced cancer as highly complicated, complex and maybe a bit doom and gloom. But even in the most challenging of cases, we always try to help as much as we can and deliver the best standard of care. That’s so rewarding in itself.

To read more about Christina's work, visit KingEdwardVII.co.uk

DISCLAIMER: We endeavour to always credit the correct original source of every image we use. If you think a credit may be incorrect, please contact us at info@sheerluxe.com.