Something Significant: Dr. Jocelyn Dunn

When facing the possibility of failure, it is tempting to take the easy way out. Listening to your intuition takes guts – and it certainly helps to have the support of friends and family.

For Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we wanted to share our Something Significant interview with Dr. Jocelyn Dunn, an oncologist in private practice at Stanford, specializing in the surgical diagnosis and treatment of benign and malignant breast disease.

Jocelyn graduated from Stanford University with her B.S. in Medical Microbiology, received her M.D. from Harvard Medical School, and completed her residency and chief residency in 1992 at Stanford University Hospital. She is a childhood friend of Matt’s and a wonderful example of what it means to pursue something significant.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got where you are today?

I was born and raised in Northern California – both of my parents are immigrants from Mainland China and I have three brothers. The high school I attended (Del Valle High School in Walnut Creek) was not a particularly rigorous academic experience, but it was very fun and allowed us to mature happily. I played a sport nearly every season, worked after school at a local shoe store, and still had plenty of time to hang out with a great group of friends. Things were much more carefree back then!

When it came time to apply for college, I was accepted to Stanford and U. C. Berkeley. Even though I grew up less than an hour from Stanford, I never visited campus before deciding to attend. People told me it was a beautiful campus and a good school – and when my mom asked me to go there because it was smaller, it was an easy decision.

My first semester at Stanford was an eye-opening experience. I had to learn how to really study for the first time. When I came home to Walnut Creek over Thanksgiving break, my parents noticed I was studying a lot in my pajamas. This new intensity must have worried even my Chinese immigrant parents. A few days after returning to school there was a letter in my P.O. Box from my father. His words stuck with me as a guiding force of what is important… he wrote, “Don’t study too hard. Just try your best, and take good care of yourself. We don’t care if you get B’s.” I laughed and then cried. I was so touched that their primary concern was purely my happiness and wellbeing. In reality, it actually made me work harder, but what a gift to know that my parents were so supportive.

By the time I was accepted to Harvard Medical School, I felt quite prepared and ahead of the game. Toward the end of medical school, it was time to pick my specialty for residency training. I always thought I would train in Internal Medicine with additional fellowship training in Medical Oncology because I did research in this field in college and enjoyed the idea of treating/curing cancer. I never thought I would become a surgeon, so I arranged my Surgery rotation near the end of my medical school rotations because I didn’t really care about it. Naturally, I loved it!

It turns out that, to me, almost everything about Surgery was interesting, challenging and fun. I loved being able to identify a problem and fix it! When it was time to apply for a residency program, I had such a dilemma: Medicine (like I always planned) or Surgery (my newfound love)? As I agonized about the decision, in a 5-minute phone conversation my dad said, “I don’t know what the big deal is. You can do one year of surgical residency and if you don’t like it, you can quit. A year of surgery training will benefit you in anything you choose to do in the future.” When I looked at it like that, I didn’t waste a minute submitting my surgical residency applications.

Most people don’t feel like they can start something and quit, but it’s not as big of a deal as we think it is. Also, if you are doing something you love, it makes the journey worthwhile. Every day I am so glad I followed my instincts and chose Surgery as my field of expertise. That 5-minute conversation, and my dad’s advice to follow my gut, shaped my career.

I returned back to the Bay Area and completed both my General Surgery residency and chief residency in 1992 at Stanford University Hospital. Through my years of schooling and experience, I knew I wanted to directly take care of patients. I am now in private practice at Stanford and specialize in the surgical diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

In addition to my work, my home life is incredibly important to me. My husband, Ron Dalman is Chief of Vascular Surgery at Stanford. I also have 2 children, Jessie (19), a sophomore at Stanford and Jackson (18), a freshman at Georgetown. We also have our most popular family member, JJ, an 11-year-old Labradoodle.

How has significance played a role in your journey?

Family has played a very important role in my journey – and my family has taught me a lot about significance.

Through every step of life, my parents have never waivered in being 100% behind me. Even when I did something they disagreed with or when I stumbled, I still knew I had their love and unconditional support. They taught me not to fear failure or be worried about letting people down. This has given me a real sense of freedom and adventure because I’m not afraid of anything. Now that I am a parent, I try to instill the same values to my children. It is difficult, but I try my best!

My work is also very significant to me. I see it as an unbelievable privilege to take care of my patients. I specialize in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, which means the majority of my patients are women… and many of them are my peers. They trust me to help them make life-altering decisions and to perform their surgical treatments with skill, so they can overcome cancer. In my work, I have the opportunity to make a positive impact on someone’s life each day. It’s the most rewarding work I can imagine.

Was there a specific moment or situation when you became aware of those things that are most significant to you?

There hasn’t been one specific cataclysmic event.

Surgical training and residency was a grueling experience – some physical and mental suffering and undeniably hard work. However, it was also a time of excitement, bonding and exhilaration. Getting through it made me feel like I could do anything.

Many of my surgical colleagues agree that surviving a surgical residency gives one a confidence and resilience that is empowering. Sometimes people forget about that positive aspect of training. I loved the experience and it has significantly impacted the way I live today. For example, after completing my surgical residency, getting up in the middle of the night to take care of my children when they were babies was a pleasure… and a piece of cake!

What obstacles have you faced in your pursuit of significance? How did you overcome them?

When I was a child, race was an issue. I was the only Chinese kid in my elementary school and I think only one of two in my high school. Even though I had lots of friends, there were jokes and teasing. People thought it didn’t bother me, but it did. College was such a relief because there was a lot more diversity. It’s something I had to overcome back then, but the world is a very different place now. Now, ethnicity is a plus in most situations and the world is better because of it.

I have faced other obstacles in my adult life – but each time I try to follow my gut and have the courage to do what my instincts tell me to do.

What is one thing you wish you knew 10 years ago?

If I knew that my kids would turn out the way they are now, I wouldn’t have worried as much 10 years ago. They turned out so great and I spent way too much time worrying back then!

What is one hope you have for the next 10 years?

I hope there will be significant advancements in the treatments available for breast cancer, particularly metastatic breast cancer. I am hoping that more treatments will be developed that prolong peoples’ lives and provide a good quality of life. I think this is a realistic goal since science is getting better at targeting treatment for a tumor’s specific genetic makeup. There are already some targeted therapies available that maximize treatment, and minimize toxicity to the patient, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Progress with this type of targeted treatment is a very believable thing in the next decade.

Are there any books or resources you would like to recommend to our readers?

I reluctantly read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg as part of a women’s book club. For some reason, I didn’t think it would be a book I could identify with, but I ended up enjoying it so much I even made my husband read it! It is particularly relevant for women in their 20s and 30s, but worth reading for men and women of all ages.

One of my favorite lessons from the book is to not be afraid to take risks, to follow your instincts, and do what you believe in. Sometimes it is best not to overanalyze things.

In the book there is a story about Sheryl Sandberg’s job interview with Google’s CEO at the time, Eric Schmidt. Google was in its very early stages and relatively unknown. Sheryl writes, “My heart wanted to join Google in its mission to provide the world with access to information,” but on paper the Google job was full of uncertainty. So Eric Schmidt said to her, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, you don’t ask what seat. You just get on.“ And so Sheryl got on, and had an extremely successful career at Google. She got on the rocket ship with a mission that she “believed in deeply.”

That’s how life is… you have to embrace things you want to do and take a chance.

Images via Dr. Jocelyn Dunn | This post contains affiliate links, which means if you click and then purchase we will receive a small commission (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for reading & supporting Happy Living!

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