This Women’s Month we give women behind the masks – female oncology pharmacists – the applause they deserve.
Who is she?
The environment appears cold, morbid and sterile. She is cloaked behind a glass screen whilst meticulously manipulating syringes and other instruments to achieve accuracy and sterility for her patient’s life altering medication.
She is driven by many things: an unwavering emotional desire to be part of the patient’s cancer journey and her need to contribute to society in a meaningful way. She is also cognizant of the profession she represents and her role in inspiring others to join and add value to it. In stark contrast to the clinical environment in which she works, her outlook necessitates hope and endless possibilities.
Oncology pharmacy is a niche field in the pharmacy industry and is mainly dominated by females. It attracts very few pharmacists for the following reasons. Firstly, it’s not a recognised specialty in SA albeit the alarming rate of new cancer diagnoses and the associated treatment required. Secondly, pharmacists fear the daily exposure to hazardous drugs, therefore the potential for serious harm if not properly trained and educated. Lastly, oncology pharmacy is not well understood and marketed within the pharmaceutical industry.
What she does?
A typical day for an oncology pharmacist consists of: counselling emotionally charged patients; analysing, interpreting and dispensing prescriptions; attending to queries by medical staff and suppliers; receiving drug deliveries and ensuring stock levels are balanced.
Then there’s the most critical aspect of the job – the actual preparation of chemotherapy. In the words of Marc Summerfield, “Preparing chemotherapy is not like preparing a milkshake!” Each preparation is individualised and specific to the patient’s weight, height, status and blood work. This requires accuracy. The ability of the pharmacist to manipulate and interpret equipment, sterility and time.
For the oncology pharmacist, amidst all this craziness is the surprisingly soothing noise of the laminar flow fan that hums in the background. The smell of the 70% isopropyl alcohol and latex which our noses have become so accustomed to, and then finally the deafening silence when just about everyone has been dripped. A silence that brings hope for the patient and a silence which brings a sense of accomplishment to the pharmacist.
Highs and lows
Rukshana Essop, a seasoned adult and paediatric oncology pharmacist, says the most challenging part of her daily toil is the unpredictability that each day brings. Managing patient waiting times and the associated stress of their families require compassion and respect under trying conditions. One must also ensure the chemotherapy is prepared accurately.
On the other hand, oncology pharmacist, Idalie Theron, says the most rewarding aspects of her day is interacting with patients and listening to their inspiring stories of hope and survival despite the mostly severe side effects.
I salute you
This dynamic specialist field requires absolute attention to detail and commitment to the processes and patients involved. It’s not for everyone! It challenges your physical, mental and emotional competencies. It demands growth, compassion and respect at all levels. It’s for these very reasons that my heart swells with absolute admiration when I think of these phenomenal women. My fellow colleagues – the women behind the masks. Despite the complexities of their jobs outlined above and the daily pressures of normal life, they continue to do outstanding work for their patients and our profession!
MEET OUR EXPERT – Lailaa Cajee
Lailaa Cajee is an oncology pharmacist with over nine years of experience. This includes working on clinical trials, risk and disease management programmes, training and education. She is the co-founding director of SASOPH and founder of Specialised Oncology Solutions. She is passionate about education and gaining recognition for oncology pharmacists in South Africa.