Surgeon Susannah Graham guides women with breast cancer through treatment in a way that makes them feel they have choices and autonomy. We discuss her love of femininity in fashion, why the difficult aspects of her job make it so rewarding, and the joys and challenges of being a new mother and wife.
Join our conversation in the latest in our series of interviews with the #womenofwest14th.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and what you do?
I am a surgeon, specialising in breast and endocrine surgery. I currently work mostly with women with breast cancer. I’m also a wife, and mum to a 13 month old girl which is exciting and scary.
Have you always wanted to be a surgeon?
Mum says I’ve been telling people I was going to be a doctor from two years old. When I was a young girl I said I would be surgeon. I initially thought I wanted to do cardio-thoracic surgery but as I started practising my interests changed and I discovered that breast surgery really suited my passions.
What pathway do your patients follow from their initial referral?
I believe that every journey should be tailored to the individual. I am often the first specialist a person will see and become integral in working out the best path of treatment, which might mean surgery or chemotherapy.
You’re placed in an incredible position of trust.
I try to build that trust by guiding my patients in a way that makes them feel that they have choices and autonomy. You have to work out the best approach for each person and constantly change the way you explain things. It’s one of the reasons I love my job.
What’s the hardest part of what you do?
Compartmentalising the different parts of my life can be hard. Leaving a difficult clinic and going home to be wife and mother. Burn out is a big problem in my profession so working out ways to debrief is important.
You got married and had your daughter Millie around the same time?
It happened very quickly and spontaneously! My husband Simon and I always knew we wanted to get married and have a baby, but thought the timing would be different. We found out we were pregnant then organised a surprise wedding, and our engagement party/baby shower to happen on the same day. I wouldn’t change it for anything.
Are your family very close?
Almost pathologically close. I live within 200 metres of my mother and she helps a lot with my daughter – the granny nanny is amazing. My husband’s parents are also very supportive and help a lot. I realise that I am very, very lucky. I can go to work and not worry.
You recently celebrated getting your letters. Can you tell me about that?
I became fully qualified as a general surgeon three years ago. The convocation ceremony and annual scientific conference, where it’s announced that you are a new Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, moves around the world so I did it this year in Sydney.
Was there a gown involved?
Do you wear scrubs all day?
If I’m in surgery it’s scrubs. In the clinic I get to wear my own clothes. I promised myself early in my career that I would never be one a frumpy surgeon. Fashion is something I love and enjoy.
Why does that bring you pleasure?
I’ve always embraced femininity in fashion, and express myself through accessories and clothes that are stylish and well made. I like things that are versatile, a little different, and show my personality.
How do you feel when you’re wearing West 14th?
Lovely. Sometimes leather can be stiff, harsh and masculine but this is deliciously soft, like it’s already been worn in. As a woman who is not in the standard size range it can be hard to find stylish clothes that are well cut. I’m not a small girl. I’ve always loved my sister’s West 14th jackets, they didn’t fit me. When I found out that bigger sizes had become available it was exciting because they were available to me for the first time.
Do you get any down time?
Time alone? In my commute to and from work. I make calls, listen to the radio and find out what’s happening in the world. I love spending time with my husband and baby, and am learning to say no to other commitments so that I can embrace that time with them.
A very successful woman spoke to us at college and said you cannot give 100% of yourself to every aspect of life at all times. As soon as you recognise and embrace that the happier you will be.
Did you have female mentors in medical school?
That came later. I don’t want special consideration or support just because I’m a woman. I want to be given merit because I’ve worked hard and earned it. I love the fact that the work/life/family balance is being discussed more. In medicine there’s a mentality that if you have time to have lunch you have time to do more work. We’re only just starting to acknowledge that caring for our own health makes us better at our jobs.