Tell me about yourself. I am a grateful, young at heart, wife, mother, Christian and doctor that treats patients with cancer.
What do you do in your free time? Go on early morning walks or bike rides, surf the internet, cook for friends and family, catch up with long distance friends on the phone or shop alone. After a long day, I prefer a sappy Hallmark movie with my husband with popcorn.
What are the 3 most important things to you?
1. A healthy, loving family life
2. To stay relevant to make a positive impact in society and culture as a person of in profession and of faith through service and excellence.
3. Maintain a healthy lifestyle through diet, exercise, rest and relationships.
Do you think it’s important to set goals and dream big dreams? Absolutely. Your secret of success is found in your daily routine. I set goals daily and l love lists. If you don’t have a dream or goals you have no direction. You must be moving forward towards daily, monthly and yearly goals. Proverbs 29:18- “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
What is your current vision for your future? To stay healthy, active and serve my community as I work in my career as an oncologist and center medical director at MD Anderson in The Woodlands, Texas as we expand our programs in our community. I also hope to continue to strengthen our family, grow in my faith and to continue to learn new skills in leadership and service.
When did you know you were called to be a doctor? I was 17 years old, sitting in a college course listening to an anatomy lecture given by a guest speaker who was a practicing physician radiologist who pointed out structures on x-rays of the human body. I said, “I don’t want to do this, I want to do that!” It was a life changing moment.
What were the defining moments in your life that helped you realize your calling as a doctor? There were many. I had several doctors pull me aside while I worked as a nuclear medicine technologist and told me I was wasting my God given talent, needed to quit my job and go to medical school.
Another time was a few weeks before graduation with my bachelor’s degree in hospital administration, I realized I really did not want to be an administrator. I really still had the same desire I had when I was 17. I still wanted to be a doctor.
How did you decide to go into oncology? It was a last moment decision to change my specialty. I was planning to be a radiologist, but several physicians met with me and encouraged me to reconsider working in an area with more direct patient contact. I loved radiology and had worked with oncology patients previously as a nuclear medicine technologist. The oncology patients were my favorite patients. I also marveled at the special relationships I observed of the oncology patients and their oncologists. I did my rotation through radiation oncology and was familiar with many aspects of the work with physics, radiobiology, equipment and imaging in general. There were also two superb oncologists that influenced me and helped solidify my decision.
What steps did you take to make it where you are today? It was a very long road with many obstacles to reach my goals. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, I immediately went back to school for another two years to take premed classes. I got involved in study groups and later took the MCAT’s (medical college admission test). After obtaining reference letters and meeting with the dean of the medical school admissions, I then applied to medical schools, interviewed and made my decision for my training. During the last year of medical school I chose my specialty and began applying to programs throughout the county. I was invited to interview at several residencies. In March of my final year of medical school, on “Match Day”, I learned where I would do our my residency. After medical school I did a year internship. During late spring of my internship year we traveled to Houston for a weekend, bought a home and began to prepare for our move in June. I began my residency in July 1998 and studied another four years at the University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center. I was invited to join the faculty and have been on staff since 2002. From the time I went back to school until I graduated from my residency the total time commitment was 12 years of intense study.
Who is your greatest inspiration? Joseph in book of Genesis. He was a good person who suffered a lot injustice, was separated from his parent, had tremendous family conflict, but kept a good attitude and worked with excellence no matter how difficult the task. His excellent spirit paid off and eventually he became second in command of Egypt. He even saved the brothers who betrayed him as well as an entire nation. He said famously, “ what you meant for evil God used for good “(Genesis 50:20). His life speaks to me of patience, excellence, justice and endurance.
Who influenced you the most? No one person. I had many influences along the way.
Perhaps the biggest influencers are almost always our parents- for good or bad. And I have to say this is true of me.
A woman named Kathy I mention in a story in my book. She was the first professional working wife and mom to mentor me. She developed breast cancer and passed away. It would be years later that I would fully understand the impact she would have on my life and my ultimate career.
There were also several female physicians I met briefly along the way who would encourage me and give a vision of what was in my future as a doctor with children and time management.
Dr. Kevin McCann. I doubt I would have even taken the first steps to start the journey without his encouragement, support, guidance and mentorship.
My Pastors and my husband Chuck helped me to stay steady in times of great doubt, loneliness and discouragement.
My previous chairmen, Dr.’s James Cox, Tom Buchholz and Steve Hahn, who all demonstrated excellent leadership skills.
What is the greatest lessons you have learned from your parents?
1.Get an education. My parents had no education through no fault of their own. They set goals, worked long, hard and were “street smart.” They did well economically despite the obstacles they faced. Both parents regretted they did not have formal education and stressed it was important. My Dad was not thrilled about having daughters and stated he felt girls had little value in society. But at the end of my junior year in high school my Dad changed his mind and asked me to consider a college education. I am so glad he did. Having an education changed my life.
2. Don’t live with regret. My mother confided how she regretted she never fulfilled her dream to be a nurse who worked with newborns. Those conversations stayed in my mind in my twenties. I did not want to be in my 60’s and look back with all the regrets that she did. I remember being 30 and saying I have to try to be a doctor- if I fail, at least I could live with that.
3. How to be a better doctor. Two years into practice my mom developed an aggressive stage IV cancer and passed away very quickly. I became a caregiver and advocate for my mother. The lessons were invaluable and equipped me with a deeper understanding and compassion for my patients and their families.
What does being a beauty queen mean to you? Without sounding cliché, beauty is truly more than skin deep. It’s someone who radiates love, joy, peace and confidence.
Speaking of beauty- what do you use on your skin?
I have used Mary Kay moisturizer in the am and pm since I was 24 until about 4 years ago. Now I use Oil of Olay or Macadamia oil.
What inspires you to live with passion every day? We are only here on this planet for a short period of time. No one is guaranteed tomorrow. I want to do the most amount of good I can with the time I have. Money can’t buy happiness. Over the years I have met miserable, unfulfilled, wealthy people. I acknowledge wealth brings convenience and ease, but not lasting fulfilment. I want to love well, help the less fortunate, serve others, and make the world a better place. I believe one person can make a difference.
How did you use your passion to make your dreams come true? Passion is that “grit” that keeps you moving forward. It’s the perseverance you must have if your dreams will be realized. I counted the cost and knew it would be a long road. It was twelve years from beginning to end of my training. I lived in increments of 6-12 weeks, keep a calendar and checked off the time. I celebrated each victory along the way. I prayed that I would not just survive, but that I would thrive through the journey. I attended almost every event with my kids I could, even if it meant no sleep. We rarely missed a meal together, story time, prayer time except for call nights during my internship year. I prayed that I could be in the house of God at least one day a week and I was granted that.
What quotes or sayings do you live by? “Only one life twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”-C.T.Studd
“Sometimes on your way to a dream, you get lost and find a better one.”- Lisa Hammon
“Never tell your 16 x 20 dream, to 3 x 5 people.”- Unknown.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. “-John 10:10
“Learning never exhausts the mind.”-Leonardo da Vinci
“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” –Thomas Jefferson.
Through the ups and downs of your life what is the greatest lesson that you have learned?
God is a good father. His plan for us is so much better than ours. Forgive those who have hurt you and move on. Surrender your life to Him and invite Him to take you on His adventure- you won’t believe where it will take you- just hang on!
What was the worst advice someone gave you? “Forget about being a doctor. Your kind don’t do well in medical school. Stay home, have children, bake bread and just be glad you are married to a professional.”- Premed advisor, 1981
What is the best advice someone told you? “ Apply to the residency that you want to attend. Don’t listen to the naysayers. What’s the worst thing that can happen? They could say no. As the saying goes, “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Dr. McCann.
What’s been a hard thing for you to do? Take care of myself. A few years ago I made a commitment to do what I tell my patients. To set healthy boundaries with my time. I now actively plan for rest, exercise and to eat a healthier diet. Doctors are notorious for keeping long hours, eating in 2 minutes and living a stressful, unhealthy lifestyle.
Have you done anything a bit unusual with your career?
1. I have co-published a book for breast cancer patients, “The Breast Cancer Journey- Stories of Hope with Action Items for Survival” Its available through Amazon and Westbow. Proceeds from the book support MD Anderson Cancer Research. Check it out.
2. I volunteer my time to co-facilitate a breast cancer support group called, “Breast Friends Woodlands”. We meet the second Wednesday of each month for the last 10 years in Montgomery county. I adore these amazing ladies!
What advice would you give the beauty queen reading this interview about following their dreams?
1. Pray for Divine guidance for your future.
2. Remember that any dream worth having will take a strong commitment and determination. Expect obstacles along the way. If it were easy, everyone would do it.
3. Get a mentor. Find someone doing what you want to do. Ask for their guidance or advice.
4. Learn to manage your time well and stay focused on your goals.
5. Let a few close friends you trust in on your plans for support.
6. It will cost you. Be prepared to let go of anything and anyone that drains your energy.
7. Work in teams whenever you can. Others can see what you can’t and together you can accomplish more.
8. Enjoy the journey. There are always treasures along the way if you look for them.
9. Keep a great attitude. You are fortunate to be working towards a dream. Not everyone is so lucky.
Pamela J. Schlembach, M.D.
Professor, Radiation Oncology
University of Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center
Center Medical Director, Woodlands.