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‘Actively listening makes a difference but can be harder than removing a tumour’

As Professor of Translational Neuro-oncology, Marike Broekman researches how brain tumour treatment can be improved. She will discuss this in her inaugural lecture along with her work as a neurosurgeon and the importance of a positive workplace culture.

Marike Broekman

When Marike Broekman gets up in the morning she knows that she will be able to make a difference in people’s lives and will learn new things. She thinks it’s amazing her job enables her to do that.

It is Tuesday morning and between operations at Haaglanden Medical Centre (HMC), she has found time to answer a few questions in a video call. ‘But I may get a call about an emergency.’ Since August, she has been hProfessor of Translational Neuro-oncology (translational is about the link between the lab and patients, Ed.) at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC).

Terrible news

She has consultations on a Wednesday: then she has to tell people they have a brain tumour and that for many of them, it is incurable. Every year, around 1,100 people in the Netherlands are given this diagnosis. Fifteen months later, after major brain surgery and often radiotherapy and chemotherapy, around half of them are still alive.

‘How do you cope with having to break such terrible news?’

Oddly enough, some of her patients then feel sorry for her, she writes in her inaugural lecture. ‘They say, “How do you cope with having to break such terrible news?”’

Her response? ‘I meet such lovely people at the outpatient clinic. We have touching conversations. You soon find yourself asking questions like: What makes life worth living for people? People often cry and then we crack a few jokes. You go through all the emotions. And then all of a sudden you’re asked such a sweet question and you think, come on people that’s not something you should be worrying about at all.’ Her patients are the reason she carries on: ‘That I can mean something to people, break that news in the right way, get the relationship off to a good start.’

Rolling up sleeves

Working with her colleagues is another reason why she loves her job. ‘You really do work together in teams to improve patient outcomes. Rolling up our sleeves and getting things done together: in the morning the tumour is still there and by the end of the day it has gone.’

Science and practice

Broekman is interested in a wide variety of things. She liked lots of subjects at secondary school. She studied medicine and law at the same time and completed both degrees. Her final year of medicine was spent at Harvard University in the States. She loved the lab research, especially when combined with clinical work. ‘This is where many of my qualities come into their own.’

In her department at the HMC, she is the only doctor who also conducts lab research, and in her department at the LUMC, she is the only researcher who also works with patients. ‘It makes you more aware as a researcher about what you are doing it for.’ Her students are often interested to hear you can combine research and practice.

Still much to gain

She would obviously rather tell her patients she could cure them. ‘That’s why I do so much research.’ In recent years, she has been researching how brain tumours change the immune cells to support the tumour. She and her colleagues discovered that blocking a specific molecule involved in this slows down the tumour’s growth.

But how to bring this important finding to the practice? She and a team are now researching how the blood-brain barrier can be temporarily be opened, so that drugs can be administered to inhibit the tumour’s growth.

Broekman is optimistic: she thinks her profession is going to become a bit more cheerful. ‘We still know so little about the brain and specifically these tumours. There is so much to gain.’

‘Active listening skills and empathy make a real difference. That can be harder than removing a deep-seated tumour.’

But she stresses that improving patient prognoses also requires genuine attention and the appreciation that the best care is different for everyone. This takes more than a doctor’s technical skills, she writes in her inaugural lecture. ‘Active listening skills and empathy make a real difference. That can be harder than removing a deep-seated tumour.’

Culture change

A good workplace culture is also much needed: being able to communicate and work with colleagues and daring to ask questions if you do not understand something. ‘I was trained by someone who threw things around the operating theatre when things weren’t going to plan. People often leave the profession now because they do not like the culture. The culture has to change.’ Only then will there be a ‘learning environment’ – the title of her inaugural lecture.

Broekman is also vice-chair of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) Medical Sciences Council. Where does she find the time? ‘I always think in possibilities.’

Marieke Broekman will give her inaugural lecture on 5 April.

Text: Thessa Lageman
Main photo: Unsplash.com/jesse orrico

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