Na Tosha N. Gatson, MD, PhD, director, division of neuro-oncology; Neuroscience and Cancer Institutes, assistant professor of research and medicine, Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine
About Dr. Gatson:
As a brain cancer specialist, Dr. Gatson focuses on treating primary and metastatic brain and spinal cord cancer, as well as treating systemic cancer patients that have neurologic symptoms that are secondary to their body cancer or cancer treatment. She also spends time conducting brain cancer and other cancer research, mentoring and educating providers, residents and medical students. She truly enjoys her work, her colleagues and the connections she has built with her patients and their families.
One fun fact about Dr. Gatson:
She is the very proud mother of three children, each 9 years apart.
We asked Dr. Gatson a few questions about her career journey, obstacles she’s faced and what International Women’s Day means to her. Here’s what she said:
Why did you decide to pursue a career in healthcare?
I have known I wanted to be a physician since I was 4 years old. My mother told me that I was fascinated with the old-school boardgame called “Operation.” In middle school, I picked up a side job working for my mother as a medical transcriptionist. Later in my undergraduate and professional education career, I became interested in the complexities of the brain and wanted to learn how to preserve the very functions that make us uniquely human which include thought, language and speech, movement and the ability to express emotion in a specific way.
I decided a long time ago that I would be a soldier in the battle to preserve this humanness, specifically against the damage caused by cancer and cancer therapies. I vowed a long time ago never to “lose the battle to cancer” but instead to “win the battle for quality of life,” and I go to bed each night knowing that I have done my personal best to realize the goal daily.
Tell us about a challenge you’ve faced along your journey?
As a black woman, there have been many assumptions about my capacity to meet the call to become not just one doctor – but to obtain two doctorate degrees and take on one of the most challenging careers in medicine, neuro-oncology. I overcame multiple hurdles put before me, some by people who doubted me, and some by my own self. I learned to be my own most fierce competition, so that no one else would stand a chance in a match against me. I fought to be better than me, and me only. Doing so, I learned and conquered my greatest weaknesses and fears. I was made greater, not through comparing myself to others, but from working to be greater than yesterday’s me. Let me tell you, when you compete against yourself, there is no greater competitor. Each day, you defeat the weaker version of yourself and become a stronger, more resilient version of you. So, the greatest challenge I’ve faced along my journey has been myself. And the struggle continues, with me vowing to emerge victorious. The greatest answer to sexism, racism, classism, etc., is excellence. In striving to be excellent, I break down human-made barriers to excel and be a phenomenal woman, and the best version of myself.
What do you think is the biggest issue women face today?
The biggest issue women face today, in my opinion, is believing that there are true barriers to accomplishing a goal. As noted above, the greatest answer to sexism is excellence. When you have unquestionable excellence – you have undeniable success. This is to say, that we, as women, no longer have to play by the rules designed by men. Instead, we are obliged to create new standards and meet new highs in excellence – instead of trying to meet the call of the men that went before us. I have learned in my career as a brain cancer specialist, that people care less about your race, religion, sex or any other imposed label than they do about your ability to connect with them as a compassionate and well-informed professional who exudes confidence and offers dignity in their approach to communicating their plan for care. You see, a large number of the barriers women face in their careers tend to be those that we accept as barriers. Excellent people do not work to meet challenges, they work to exceed them and develop new standards. The excellent physician is selected 10 to 1, despite labels and categorizations. I encourage women in all professional fields to avoid driving toward the “glass ceiling” but instead to build new structures, reach to your own highest heights, seek out sponsors who believe in the blueprint that you’ve developed, and receive all successes as your own and discard the spirit of the imposter. Take on the spirit of a creator. The architect does not challenge the height of the ceiling, but instead, she masters the overall stability of the entire structure – and seeks only to build a stronger structure in the future. Don’t reach for the ceiling of someone else’s structure. Ceilings are red herrings, distractors in our career paths.
What advice would you give to other women looking to get into the healthcare field?
Find a specialty or subspecialty that she feels compliments her greatest strengths. I am compassionate, honest and I have a researching spirit. Therefore, I selected a career that would allow me to deal with the most rapidly fatal tumor in adults and develop a rapport with patients that empowers them to live as well as possible for as long as possible. We should all strive to implement our greatest talents in the careers of choice. Be the architect of the career you wish to build.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s day is “Balance for Better,” focused on building a gender-balanced world. What does that mean to you? How can we make a positive difference for women everywhere?
Seeking “gender-balance” assumes that there are inherent differences that need to be identified and prioritized for opportunities to achieve gender-equity. When we search for gender-equity we must also seek religious, ethnic, economic, social, educational and age equity. We must not assume that these differences are negative, but instead seek to build on the strengths of each of the various perspectives. Balance, in this case, should not be misinterpreted to mean equal but instead be emphasized to mean equity. Equity entails an outcome that is fair despite the number of modifications it takes to allow fair representation of a specific group. We can teach women to be architects and not just ceiling breakers.