12 October 2021

“I need to know that what I do matters”

Despite her busy schedule, physician-scientist, gastroesophageal cancer specialist and Oncode Investigator Sarah Derks (Amsterdam UMC, VUmc site) took time out to participate in the Darm to Darm cycling challenge: a charity biking race from Amsterdam to Darmstadt (Germany). What motivated her to do so, and what makes her tick both professionally and personally?

Elize Brolsma

Elize Brolsma

Elize is part of Oncode’s communication team. She has over 10 years of experience in the com-munication industry, both for commercial and non-profit organisations. After obtaining her bache-lor and master degree in communication at Utrecht University, Elize worked as a communication professional at a research institute, PR agency, law firm and internet company. She has a strong focus on external communications and Public Relations. At Oncode - together with her colleagues - Elize produces the monthly newsletters for Oncode Investigators & Researchers and the Oncode digital magazine. She publishes content for the Oncode website and is responsible for all social media channels. She enjoys discussing science with researchers and support them in their outreach.

What made you decide to join – and prepare for – the Darm to Darm ride? After all, you work long days and are a mother of two.

“I guess you could say I simply couldn’t resist (laughs). I am a pretty active, sporty person who likes to take on new challenges. Training for the Darm to Darm race fitted well into that. Plus, I like to socialise and meet new people. Combined with the fact that this race collects money to boost research into colorectal cancer – I just knew I had to join.”

“And I am really glad I did. The event has such a positive buzz around it. It’s simply very inspiring to be among people who all strive for the same purpose and to cycle as a group throughout the night. I mark it as one of the most positive events I’ve had this year.”

“On a deeper level you could perhaps say this race really fits with my life goals. I not only like to live a full life but want what I do to matter. When I look back on my life, I like to feel that I really contributed to something. I therefore try and prioritise stuff I consider relevant and meaningful.”

Was it also this outlook on life that made you decide to specialise as a physician and oncology scientist?

“Yes, definitely. Because of my attachment to meaningfulness, I like to contribute to efforts that improve difficult situations. When studying medicine, I realised that doing research is a great way to do so.”

“Also, in my work as a physician I have always been attracted to hospital departments where people take critical decisions and talk about life and death. If I couldn’t have specialised in oncology, you would probably have found me working in the emergency department or the intensive care unit. In this type of work, you are involved in a very hard time in someone’s life. That can be really tough, but it also gives you a great purpose. Doing work where your activities really count, is most meaningful to me.”

Is it hard sometimes to detect meaning in your work as a doctor, when you inevitably see a lot of patients that you can’t cure? After all, gastroesophageal cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to treat.

“Well, when I have days where I need to almost non-stop deliver the worst possible news to patients, these times can be pitch-black indeed. It makes you gasp at the cruelty of life and you start wondering what’s the sense of life when it’s so horrific for some people. But even in such a situation you can try and make a difference to the patient, by helping them, or getting them through that difficult process and deliver the best possible patient care. For example, by making sure they know you are always ready to answer any questions and try the best you can. Or, even better, by testing new therapies, to help unexpectedly prolong a patient’s life in a meaningful way, against all odds.”

“Besides, I have something to keep me going: the hope that in 15-20 years things will improve for my patient population, thanks to new research breakthroughs. So that by that time, my dream is that there will be many more patients I can help.”

You are seeking to contribute to such breakthroughs through your research on gastroesophageal cancer cells and their interaction with the immune microenvironment. What made you decide to join Oncode’s research community?

“To someone who balances between the worlds of clinical care and research, Oncode’s emphasis on bringing clinicians and researchers together is highly attractive. Also, I really value collaboration with researchers from other fields, but often lack the time to reach out. Joining the Oncode community bypasses this constraint.”

“My connection to Oncode also led to tangible results. I was able to start up new research, even when I didn’t have the funds for it yet. And thanks to an Oncode event, I was able to create new collaborative relationships, such as the one with the Linde Meyaard group (UMC Utrecht). Their immunological findings in stomach cancer could also have consequences for my research area and patient population.”

“On top of all this, I find my participation in Oncode’s mentoring program as a junior PI highly useful.”

Could you explain this a bit more?

“As a clinical researcher my career path is less clear-cut than had I been solely focusing on research or only working as a doctor. It is therefore great to have the opportunity to brainstorm with someone who is already further ahead.”

“My mentor sometimes also advises me on practical issues, on how to organise one’s lab differently for instance. I can be quite a perfectionist if not to say a minor control freak when it comes to organising, so I am also thoroughly enjoying that input (laughs).”

“Another aspect that I love about the program is that your mentor is affiliated to another organisation than that of the mentee. This guarantees a fresh, objective look that can be really helpful.”

“Finally, following your own path as a woman isn’t perhaps still as accepted as it is for men; we are more easily expected to help out others and may receive more pushback when we try to accomplish our own goals. More generally, as a researcher there are often many issues and people competing for your attention. Amidst that pressure, my mentor helps me keep focus on what it is that Iwant.”

What are your goals for the future?

“First and foremost, to develop new therapies that can help and treat gastroesophageal cancer. But I’d also like to develop myself in other areas. I thoroughly enjoy training young people, as well as educating patients and professionals on the latest research breakthroughs in the treatment of gastroesophageal cancer. Fortunately, an academic hospital offers the perfect backdrop for that. And I will always be striving to be the best possible clinician I can be.”

* The 500 km long DARM to DARM RIDE (‘colon-to-colon) cycling challenge took place on 2 July 2021 and was organised by the Cancer Center Amsterdam. Within 24 hours, participants cycle in estafette style from AmsterDARM to DARMstadt. *

Author: Marloes van Amerom

Oncode Investigator Sarah Derks

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