What drew Jill Whyte, MD, gynecologic oncologist at the North Shore-LIJ Cancer Institute, to medicine is the “patient interaction – sitting down, answering questions and guiding women through a very difficult time.” Yet she also loves surgery: “I’m happy in the OR. I could spend all day there – and I do, at least two days a week.”
Of the many women’s cancer procedures Dr. Whyte performs, she has a particular interest in minimally invasive surgery (MIS), which uses a variety of techniques to operate with smaller incisions than traditional surgery. MIS allows patients to recover faster and heal with less pain and scarring. More than half of Dr. Whyte’s procedures are minimally invasive, particularly robotic surgery for endometrial and cervical cancers, which are a large part of her practice.
Robotic instruments have advanced greatly in the last decade, allowing her to perform ever more difficult procedures and help patients with more challenging conditions. Especially for larger women, she can minimize the risk of complications. Many patients who undergo robotic surgery are out of bed the night after a major procedure and walk out of the hospital 24 hours later.
A Spectrum of Challenges
Seeing a patient with cervical cancer is “heartbreaking” because it is an almost entirely preventable disease, Dr. Whyte said. “When women have access to screening, and have a Pap smear that is interpreted and followed up correctly, cervical cancer is incredibly rare. Increased use of the HPV vaccine and appropriate cervical screening would eliminate nearly all cervical cancer. This is a disease we know how to prevent. As a society, we must invest to make sure that everyone has access to screening and prevention.”
Advanced ovarian cancer presents another kind of challenge, because there isn’t a reliable way to detect or screen for it at the early stage. “The hopeful side is that using more aggressive and innovative surgeries, plus new ways of delivering chemotherapy, we are helping women with ovarian cancer to live longer,” Dr. Whyte said. “As we learn more about the biology of ovarian cancer, new medications are coming out that specifically target ovarian cancer cells.”
Dr. Whyte recently collaborated with the Society of Gynecologic Oncology to create an educational video for patients newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer (see the video at bit.ly/JWovarian). “Ovarian cancer can be a really scary diagnosis at first, but there are many treatment options available,” Dr. Whyte said. “With state-of-the-art surgery and chemotherapy, most patients go into remission.” The video features one of Dr. Whyte’s patients, who has been disease-free for nearly six years since treatment.
“A lot of the cancers we treat are highly curable, so it’s important to also address some of the other health issues that brought patients to that diagnosis” to further improve patient care and outcomes, she said.
For example, Dr. Whyte is working to create an intervention program for endometrial cancer survivors. “We know that women with endometrial cancer tend to have a lot of risk factors for other medical problems, like cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” Dr. Whyte said. “Intervening at the point of diagnosis and helping women to start to manage some of their other health risks – through diet, exercise, meditation – is very important.”
Dr. Whyte leads twice-monthly multidisciplinary treatment planning conferences for gynecologic oncologists from North Shore University Hospital and radiation oncologists from the Center for Advanced Medicine. The team discusses every patient who underwent surgery in the previous two weeks and review her pathology to gain a broad consensus on diagnosis and management.
The discussions allow many specialists to converge on some of the more challenging cases and weigh the best treatment options. Besides improved coordination among the services, this meeting of the minds also helps identify which women may benefit by participating in clinical trials. Furthermore, it often generates new ideas for clinical research.
“My goal is to help survivors of gynecologic cancer to move past their diagnosis,” Dr. Whyte said, “to lead healthier and happier lives.”