Meet our doctors: Surgical oncologist Shawn Steen on communication

August 10, 2013 | by

Doctor-patient communication is vital in the delivery of high-quality health care. A good relationship with a physician can boost patients' self-confidence, motivation and positive view of  their health status, which can in turn influence their treatment outcomes and subsequent healing.

Shawn Steen, M.D.

Shawn Steen, a surgical oncologist, says that a good doctor-patient relationship is crucial not just for communication, but also for the healing process.

Here Shawn Steen, M.D., a City of Hope Antelope Valley surgical oncologist specializing in the treatment of breast cancer, melanoma, endocrine disorders and abdominal malignancies, discusses the importance of patient-physician communication in cancer treatment, offers some cancer prevention tips and talks about what motivated him to become an oncologist.

What’s a misconception a patient might have following a cancer diagnosis?

Many people feel powerless when they are diagnosed with cancer. However, from a physician’s standpoint, patients can have a large impact on their care. Those patients, and/or caregivers, who are organized and insightful about their tests, medication, treatments, as well their responses and symptoms to each, can greatly assist in treatment. Sometimes the physician won’t know “something is going on” unless the patient tells us. Knowledge is power, and the more a patient communicates, the better care we can provide.

What can people do to lower their risk of developing cancer?

We are learning that the immune system plays a big role in the development of cancer. The age-old wisdom of eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep and trying to keep stress to a minimum does more for cancer prevention than almost any specific medication.

Eating antioxidant foods and decreasing overexposure to carcinogen chemicals in processed foods likely helps to prevent the buildup of chemicals and genetic damage that can lead to cancer. However, these factors are difficult to study or prove in a scientific fashion since they occur over a person’s lifetime and are influenced environment, genetics and other influencers that can change risk that are beyond our control or knowledge. However, it has never been shown that cancer is more likely to develop in people who eat healthy or maintain a healthy lifestyle.

What do you think will be accomplished in cancer treatment(s) in the next five or 10 years?

One promising area is tumor vaccines. If we can teach our body’s own natural immune system to kill cancer when it is at the single cell level, then cancer would never grow large enough to cause any problems. Most people don’t know that our bodies have individual cancer cells that are caught and destroyed all the time by our immune systems, just like a virus or bacteria you would pick up on a doorknob. So using the immune system to prevent cancer, or even fight an existing cancer, is going to be a big shift. Similarly, certain cancers that are caused by viral infections, such as HPV-related cervical cancer, can essentially be eliminated by vaccination against those viruses.

Why did you decide to become a surgical oncologist?

To have the ability to remove cancer and assist in helping to cure patients really appealed to me. I get gratification from eradicating a cancer that you can see, feel and remove entirely from someone. It is the most concrete way of fighting cancer to me.

What inspires you daily to do the work you do?

I have lost family members to cancer and I think of them when I treat my patients. Also, now that I have children of my own and feel the love a parent has for a child, I see my patients in a different light. I know and understand better now that each patient is someone’s child, sibling and/or parent. Knowing and feeling that strong family love and bond myself makes me want to do my best to help them.

What advice do you have for patients recently diagnosed with cancer?

The diagnosis of cancer can be a life-changing event and, from the very beginning, patients have to decide how “their” battle will be fought. The benefit of staying positive and hopeful cannot be underestimated. Loss of hope and despair will only weaken the immune system, affect the physical body, as well as the spiritual self. This can all make for a challenging road even more difficult to traverse. Furthermore, I’ve found having a cancer specialist who is an optimist and always positive can help in much the same way.

The doctor’s job is to use their knowledge and skills to cure the patient, and if a patient remembers to communicate during their treatment and maintains a positive outlook during the process, then together, we are a winning team.