Keeping Communication at the Heart of Gynecologic Oncology | Meet a Scientist

For someone who has spent four decades blazing trails in ovarian cancer research and women’s healthcare, it might seem odd that the one word to sum up Dr. Jonathan Berek’s wide range of experiences and contributions would be ‘communication.’ 

But the conveying of information in empathetic, successful, understandable and compelling ways has been at the heart of everything that Jonathan has done throughout his career.

Jonathan Berek, MD, MMS

Jonathan is the Laurie Kraus Lacob Professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He is currently Director of the Stanford Women’s Cancer Center, which he started when he moved to Stanford 15 years ago to Chair the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. For more than two decades, he served as UCLA faculty and as the Director of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology.  

At Stanford, he’s also a Senior Advisor at the Stanford Cancer Institute, and Executive Director of the Stanford Health Communication Initiative. Recently, he was selected as Fellow in the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, where he was one of 25 colleagues from throughout the world chosen to collaborate on special impactful programs at Stanford University. And he is still a practicing gynecologic oncologist. 

“This year, I’m on a partial sabbatical,” said Jonathan, laughing. “But it hasn’t changed my work level!” What it has done is allow him to focus on all of the various creative activities and initiatives he’s involved in—research, administration, teaching, and educational programs.

A non-traditional path to medicine

Another thing Jonathan has turned his attention to is documentary filmmaking. This may seem like an outlier compared to his other areas of focus, but it’s actually connected to cancer research. And it dates back to his college days. 

Before enrolling in medical school at Johns Hopkins, Jonathan was an English and Theater major at Brown University. He did some professional acting, and his first job was directing at the college’s repertory company. His colleagues at Stanford were surprised to learn that he had a background in playwriting, directing, producing and acting. So decades later, when the Stanford Office of Medical Development decided to create a short documentary film to promote the research at the Stanford Women’s Cancer Center, Jonathan was asked to direct the film.  

Jonathan Berek on set

Now, he works closely with a film production company and they call him whenever they’re doing a film related to medicine, cancer, and other topics. He is currently directing, writing, and executive producing two full-length documentary films with his own production company, MedArts Films.

“It involves storytelling,” Jonathan said. “It involves the communication of science, because we have to explain to donors why their money is valuable.”

Communicating with patients

One of the reasons Jonathan was attracted to gynecologic oncology rather than general surgical or medical oncology was because this specialty combines all the aspects of what he believes it takes to be a good doctor.

“It’s one of the few subspecialties that starts with diagnosis and then you carry the patient all the way through,” he said.

He explained that the process requires someone to not only be a great surgeon—something he enjoyed because it posed a specific problem (a tumor), with a solution (you take it out)—but also requires being well-versed in connecting with patients and maintaining that bond throughout, supporting them emotionally through all the psychological, psychosocial and psychosexual issues that arise for them and their families.

“In order to be a great gynecologic oncologist,” Jonathan said, “you have to be good at communicating and you have to be very supportive of the patients. And that’s something that takes effort, practice and skills training.”

Teaching communication skills

It’s that skill, communicating with patients, that led Jonathan to help develop a program called ACES: Advancing Communication Excellence at Stanford. It was designed to improve the culture of how physicians and other healthcare providers at Stanford relate to their patients and patients’ families. These workshops (which used to be in person, but are now delivered virtually) teach basic communication skills. To date, over one thousand professionals have gone through this training.

Harkening back to his theater experience, Jonathan also developed a communication skills module called ‘medical improvisation,’ which helps healthcare professionals to be more spontaneous in their interactions with patients. 

And he’s developed another series that provides training in how to make scientific and medical presentations for physicians and scientists.

Dr. Jonathan Berek at work

25 years of ovarian cancer research

Jonathan’s career in medicine and research began while he was in medical school, working in a lab that was exploring immunology and immunobiology of ovarian cancer. He continued that research work when he was a resident physician at Harvard. For 25 years, his laboratory research as faculty at UCLA explored how our immune system responded to ovarian cancer tumors.

It should be no surprise that he describes that body of research as focusing on how “white cells and antibodies (parts of our immune system) talk to cancer cells.”

“That communication,” Jonathan explained, “affects how the cancer cell responds in the body, how it grows. And if you can understand that, you can sometimes modify or change the growth of the cancer cell.”

An early and lasting connection to OCRA

Jonathan is a founding member of OCRA’s Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC), and has been serving for 24 years. 

“They invited me to participate in the first group of clinician-scientists who were involved in discovery and ovarian cancer,” said Jonathan, “to brainstorm how we could help move the cause, help to raise money, and develop the grants and awards program. I was involved in the very early phase. I just stayed because it’s a fantastic organization.”

A lifetime of commitment

Jonathan was recently honored by The American Cancer Society with a Lifetime Achievement Award—an award that is well deserved. He acknowledges that he’s in a great place in his career, where he can run clinical trials and mentor others in their research. 

As he discusses with his mentees their work, he bears in mind the wisdom of two of his own mentors and heroes—Phil Pizzo, the former dean of medicine at Stanford, and Sherman Mellinkoff, the former dean of medicine at UCLA. He describes them in turn as “very compassionate,” “incredibly brilliant,” “accessible” and “Solomonic in his understanding of human behavior.”

And for Jonathan himself? He has a rule he applies to new opportunities. “I’ll do it if I’m having fun, they want me to do it, and I can make a contribution!”

Jonathan, we are so incredibly grateful for all the contributions you have made to OCRA and to the field.

Jonathan Berek in group

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