Pioneer in Psychosocial Oncology
Vera Peters, one of seven children, grew up on a little farm in Rexdale, Ontario. She attended a one-room schoolhouse in Thistletown. Both Rexdale and Thisletown were farmland in the early 1900’s. Vera was such a good student that she completed high school at 16. But she was too young to enter Medical School, so she studied mathematics and physics at the University of Toronto. The next year, she transferred to the Faculty of Medicine.
In addition to her schooling, Vera also played inter-faculty women’s hockey and worked as a waitress on a tourist ship ss Kingston. There she met her husband-to-be.
After her graduation, Dr. Peters spent two years as a surgical resident at St. John’s Hospital in Toronto, studying surgical anatomy and recently diagnosed cases of cancer.
During her training, she met Dr. Gordon Richards, Director of the Department of Radiology at the Toronto General Hospital. This meeting shaped her career as a radiation oncologist. She developed interest in Hodgkin's Disease and breast cancer. Dr. Richards noted the young professional for her analytical mind and a capacity for researching. In the 1930’s, there was no formal training or certification for radiation oncology, and Dr. Peters became Dr. Richards’ apprentice. She joined the radiotherapy personnel at Toronto General Hospital in 1937.
Until that time, Hodgkin's Decease was considered incurable. The patients underwent surgical removal of the affected area in an attempt to stop the cancer from spreading. Dr. Richards thought that radiation could help Hodgkin's Decease patients. In 1947, he asked Dr. Peters to examine all his records of those patients. Two years later, Dr. Peters presented her study of the 247 patients treated over the past 20 years.
In 1950, Dr. Peters published her research on Dr. Richards’ work, showing that high dose radiotherapy could cure Hodgkin's disease. (Dr. Richards died a year earlier.) Although this publication received little response within the medical community, the second paper, published in 1956, drew more interest. Cancer centers reviewed their treatment of Hodgkin's disease by increasing the dose of radiation. Many doctors started their own observations based on those studies. Dr. Peters could define patterns of the disease with the increased number of observed cases. Those studies brought the cure rate of Hodgkin’s Disease to over 90 percent today.
Besides her contribution to the Hodgkin’s Disease therapy, Dr. Peters was aware of the psychosocial impact of mastectomy. In the first part of the 20th century, mastectomy was the standard treatment for early breast cancer. Dr. Peters collaborated with radiation oncologists from the Toronto General Hospital and showed that radical surgery was not the only option. She studied her eight thousand cases of breast cancer from 1935 to the late 50s and proved the effectiveness of lumpectomy and radiation for breast cancer, sparing millions of women from scars and associated emotional trauma.
In 1958, Dr. Peters moved to the newly opened Princess Margaret Hospital, the largest radiation treatment centre in North America. She had been a member of the founding staff for years and afterwards spent much of her career there.
Dr. Peters’ approach was innovative for the time when surgery was the only option for cancer patients. Dr. Peters’ believed that the emotional trauma that followed surgery, mastectomy in particular, weakened patients. She advocated as little intervention as possible for curative results. She also recognized patients’ rights to learn about their true conditions, to seek consultations, a second opinion, and to know treatment alternatives. Her philosophy became a part of today’s studies of cancer.
In addition to her job as a radiation oncologist, Dr. Peters was a loving wife and mother. She found time for her demanding profession and for her husband, children, and grandchildren.
Dr. Peters worked at the Princess Margaret Hospital until her retirement in 1976; afterwards, she consulted part-time as an oncologist at the Oakville Trafalgar Memorial Hospital until 1988. Dr. Vera Peters died at the Princess Margaret Hospital from breast cancer at age 82. Her colleagues and family remembered her as an ultimate caregiver.
In Memoriam: Vera Peters A two-page article from Journal of Clinical Oncology describes Dr. Peters’ professional life
Catton, J., "Vera Peters: Medical Innovator" in Framing Our Past: Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century, Sharon Anne Cook.
Image: Department of Radiation Oncology, University of Toronto