Stephanie Downs-Canner, MD, joins the UNC Department of Surgery as an Assistant Professor, Division of Surgical Oncology. She sat down to discuss how being a family member of a breast cancer survivor changed the trajectory of her life, what not making the team taught her and the advice she gives to interns, residents and medical students.

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Stephanie Downs-Canner, MD, graduated cum laude from Williams College in 2005 with a degree in economics and political science. She matriculated to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine where she received the Brinton Prize awarded to the student with highest honors in four years of medical school. After graduating medical school cum laude, she stayed at the University of Pittsburgh for her general surgery residency where she continued to receive accolades including an NIH T32 research fellowship and the Doris B. Maxwell Prize for research. Following residency, Dr. Downs-Canner completed a fellowship in Breast Surgical Oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, a premier training program for surgeons specializing in breast cancer care.

Why did you become a doctor?

When I was in college, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it changed the trajectory of my entire life. I was the first person in my family to go to college, my parents had worked hard and sacrificed to allow me the chance to do more and I didn’t want to waste that opportunity. When I stepped back and thought about how I could help people and make a difference, what I was going through at that time made it seem like an obvious choice to become a doctor. I had originally been studying economics and political science but wasn’t set on a career path. I did an extra year of studying after college to go to medical school.

I then became a surgeon because I really like solving problems and hopefully curing people of their disease. I specifically became a breast cancer surgeon because I think my experience being on the other side of the doctor-patient experience, being a family member of a patient, really made me understand what it feels like to go through that journey with someone. I think it’s really important to be sensitive to the patient and their family and help them along that difficult road to recovery. I strive to understand the goals and values of my patient and their families and work through their diagnosis and treatment in a way that aligns with these goals and values.

What brought you to the Department of Surgery at UNC?

I decided to come to UNC Surgery because I’m committed to finding a cure for breast cancer. My research is rooted in my desire to put an end to breast cancer, having had a front row seat as a family member while I watched my mother battle the disease. The support and collaboration opportunities with the UNC Cancer Center is unlike anywhere else and working together with so many outstanding clinicians, and scientists is any researcher’s dream!

I also believe it’s important to give back to the community; I wanted to work in a place where I could serve the people of the community that I live in work in. And of course, my colleagues here are so wonderful and supportive, a family that I get to work alongside and who share my passion for the work we do, caring for the people of the state of the North Carolina.

Why did you want to become a faculty member?

I am forever indebted to the teachers I’ve had throughout medical, residency, and fellowship. They are an incredibly important part of who I am as a physician and for that matter, human being. I hope to be able to continue in the long tradition of training the next generation of doctors, to train them to be the best doctors that they can be.

What kind of research are you doing?

My research is in the field of Tumor Immunology. We focus on how the immune system interacts with tumors and how we can manipulate these two actors to find better treatments and ultimately better outcomes for patients with cancer.

What are some of the goals or contributions you would like to make to your specialty?

Through my clinical practice I have much experience with oncoplastic techniques and nipple-sparing mastectomy; training that I received at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, the premier breast cancer treatment program in the country. With that training, I want to provide the latest techniques and provide the best possible care to my patients during this difficult moment in their lives.

Through my research, I hope to find a way to minimize the amount of surgery that patients need for their cancer and find treatments that help diminish the chance that cancer will ever come back.

How do you think your clinical work and your research work combine to achieve your goals?

Even though I’m a surgeon and I love what I do, I recognize that surgery itself is a big deal and can disrupt people’s lives in many ways. I am hoping to combine my clinical work and my research to minimize the amount of surgery that people need.

If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be?

I would love to sit down and talk with Bernard Fischer, a leading scientist, and surgeon in surgery. He was the first American to study partial mastectomy (lumpectomy) for breast cancer as opposed to a total mastectomy. Before he came along, everyone who had surgery for breast cancer would have their breasts removed, including the muscle on their chest wall. This procedure, called a radical mastectomy was deforming, very morbid, and a very big operation. Dr. Fisher challenged the status quo. Based on his research in the lab, he proposed that cancer spread through the blood and not by direct extension as those before him thought. For this reason, he proposed that the radical mastectomy, championed by the famous surgeon, William Stewart Halstead, was not any better at curing cancer than a smaller surgery.

Despite many people not believing in him, and in fact, vehemently disagreeing with him Dr. Fisher effectively led clinical trials of thousands of women which have now shown with twenty-five years of follow-up that there’s no difference in partial mastectomy versus a radical mastectomy operation. I’d love to hear how he was able to translate his scientific findings into such an important change in the management of breast cancer and how he overcame so many obstacles along the way. It took a lot of courage, endurance, and persistence to pursue and prove what he believed was right based on his scientific studies, which was contrary to popular opinion at the time.

What’s an example of a failure that you’ve had in your life that you’ve learned from?

When I was in college, I played lacrosse and field hockey. When I tried out for the field hockey team my freshman year, I didn’t make it. Looking back on it now, it’s no big deal, but at eighteen years old it was the first time in my life that I had not made the team and it really totally rocked my world. I didn’t quite know how to recover from that at first even though I did go on to make the lacrosse team that year.

The next year I didn’t try out for field hockey again, still stinging from my failure, but the thought was always sitting there, in the back of my mind that I wanted to make the team. Even though I was still a little embarrassed and disappointed from my initial failure, I practiced all summer, I coached camps, and I did whatever I had to do to prepare the following year tryouts. I ended up making the team my junior year and played for the next two years. I think in the grand scheme of life that’s not a big failure but was important in providing me with tools for resilience and recovery. I learned that I was still able to overcome that initial setback and achieve what I wanted through hard work and persistence.

If you give your younger self one piece of advice what would it be?

To freely pursue my passion without worrying about others’ expectations. When you do this – you do your best work!

What advice would you give yourself before going to medical school?

The most important piece of advice I have given, and I still give to interns, residents, and medical students is: remember why you went into medicine. You probably didn’t go into medicine because you wanted to make money, or because you wanted to be famous, or you wanted to make the attendings happy. You probably went to medical school because you wanted to help people in some way, that’s why you’re here. So, if you just go about your every day with that goal in mind, you will be successful.

What might someone be surprised to know about you?

Many people are surprised to find out I played sports in college and I’ve run two marathons.

So what do you do when you’re not working?

I spend most of my free time with my family, including my two sons. I have a five-year-old and a three-year-old. They’re incredibly energetic!

What did your family think of the move to North Carolina?

We were so excited to get here! What we wanted was to be part of a community, part of a place where we felt connected to our neighbors. We’ve learned quickly from the neighborhood kids that we are in a Tarheel neighborhood, we’re Carolina fans, and we don’t like Duke! We wanted our kids to experience a university campus life but also a place where they could be outdoors, enjoy nature and have space. We feel lucky that we found all of that here.

How would you describe yourself in one word?

Hardworking.