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Shawna Willey: Award for Service

 Shawna Willey, portraitShawna Willey has made great contributions in the field of breast surgery, most notably by pioneering a nipple-sparing technique for mastectomy that she has presented at meetings and  conferences around the globe. Since graduating from the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine in 1982, Shawna Willey has spent her entire career in the Washington, D.C., area. She completed medical residency training in surgery at George Washington University Medical Center, and she currently serves as the Peterson Chair of Breast Cancer Research at the Inova Schar Cancer Institute in Fairfax, Virginia. Before that, she spent 17 years at Georgetown University. She served as president of the American Society of Breast Surgeons in 2008-2009 and is currently the chair of the society’s board.

Shawna Willey is a pioneer in breast surgery, especially with nipple-sparing mastectomies, which is a novel technique. Although she’s accomplished a lot in her career, Willey believes that her greatest contribution to the field is sharing her knowledge with other medical professionals.

Willey’s motivation to share these new surgical techniques extends to an international level. She has traveled to other countries, training surgeons to perform these techniques on their patients.

“If you can educate more people, you can have a greater impact,” Willey says.

As a third-year student at the UI Carver College of Medicine, Willey discovered her passion for general surgery. Her advisor, the late Edward Mason, MD—who is credited as the father of bariatric surgery—helped form this interest.

During the mid-1990s, Willey became specifically interested in breast surgery, which was not yet a defined specialty. Breast surgery was becoming more specialized, however, and new technologies were being implemented, so she decided to pursue this path.

“I realized that I was not only pretty good at this, but I also enjoyed it,” she says. “I enjoyed the fact that I could take care of patients from their diagnosis of breast cancer to helping them become whole again, emotionally.”

During the field’s formative years, Willey became a national leader, which included key leadership posts with the American Society of Breast Surgeons.

Becoming a pioneer was challenging, especially as a woman in medicine, Willey says. While she was in medical school, only 20% of her class was female. During her postgraduate internship at George Washington University, she was the only woman among her group of 12 interns.

Today, women represent 50% or more of many medical school classes and residency training programs, which shows “tremendous progress,” according to Willey. She continues to be a mentor to young women moving up in a health profession once dominated by men.

“It's so gratifying to see that women are starting to have equal footing. And I say ‘starting’ because we're still progressing,” she says.

Although she’s made many accomplishments in the breast surgery field, Willey says there is still more work to be done. Her current focus is on breast research and looking for ways to expand or improve treatment options.

“If my to-do list is empty, that means I'm done,” Willey says. “I don't want my to-do list to ever be empty.”

By: Molly Allen