March 21, 2013, Vol. 11, Issue 6
Every year in early March, the Oregon and Southwest affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, presents a Breast Cancer Issues Conference here in Portland. Originally it was created for survivors, but it has evolved to include topics of interest to survivors, co-survivors and health professionals (CEI credits are available). The event brings together local experts presenting the latest research and resources in a day-long conference, along with a keynote speaker. This year we had the pleasure of hearing from Dr. Kimberly Allison, associate professor at Stanford University, and a pathologist who specializes in breast cancer diagnosis. She brought that unique perspective to her unexpected experience as a breast cancer patient. And, perhaps more importantly, she now brings what she learned as a patient, to her role as a doctor. With her talent for communicating about the combination, she moved her audience, and she moved me to introduce her here.
Kimberly Allison, MD
Cancer from Both Sides
Dr. Kimberly Allison diagnoses breast cancer for a living. She has a national reputation as one of the best in the U.S. So as a 33-year-old healthy new mother, she never expected to find herself looking at her own malignant cells under the microscope.
She had just taken over as director of breast pathology at the University of Washington Medical Center, and her husband had just opened a new restaurant. With a 7-month-old son and a 4-year old daughter, they had their hands full. Kimberly was still nursing her second child, when an abnormality in her breast caught her attention. She says it was more like a shelf than a lump, and although she thought it was probably related to the breast feeding, she got it checked. It turned out to be Stage 3, aggressive, and with lymph node involvement. She had six months of chemotherapy, surgery for bilateral mastectomies, followed by radiation, and a year of antibody therapy. She is nearing her five-year survivor anniversary as I write this.
That’s the medical side. What was great about listening to Kimberly, was hearing her describe how, while she knew the medical side intimately, she was driven to do other things for herself — practice yoga, guided imagery, even see a shaman. It was like listening to the girl (woman) next door. “I think I tried everything,” she said. “It’s not something I expected, and now it’s something I tell other doctors to expect.”
She ended up writing a book about her experience, titled Red Sunshine — which is what she renamed the chemotherapy drug, commonly called the “Red Devil.” It was the spiritual work she did that led her to embrace the treatment rather than endure it.
“When I was first diagnosed with cancer I had a burning desire to know more.” she said. “I surfed the internet, cruised the book stores and made phone calls looking for answers to my questions. As a pathologist who diagnoses and studies breast cancer, I already knew a lot about what tests I would get, what sorts of treatments were available, and what the survival statistics were. And there were plenty of nice references available on cancer and advice books on how to deal with it.
“But what I really wanted to know was what it would be like to go through cancer treatment. How would it really feel the first time I was hooked up to chemotherapy or lay still for radiation? What was it like to be wheeled into the operating room and how much pain would I be in when I woke up? How would I deal with continuing to raise my two young kids? How will I not hit bottom and what will it be like when I inevitably do? Not just will I survive, but how will I survive?”
“I wanted to hear from survivors. I wanted to know their stories and feel their experiences and look for hidden clues to what my future held. It was the story of a survivor, not all the medical statistics and research trials, which held the most value to me. Despite the MD behind my name, my book is not meant to offer medical advice or recommendations. It is only intended to share with you what it was like for me to go through this experience. Everyone’s experience with cancer is completely unique and there is no right or wrong way to go through it. But our stories connect us to a common core and can give us comfort that at least we are not alone in the experience.
In her talk, “Surviving Breast Cancer: A Pathologist and Patient Perspective,” she recounted her journey, from the emotional impact starting on the day of her diagnosis, which she called “a bad day at the office,” to the emergence of hope as a healer: “You are NOT a statistic,” her doctors advised her. She described how she had discovered the importance of connecting with other survivors — exactly what was occurring at the conference itself. And ultimately she had great advice for making peace with the inescapable guilt that a cancer diagnosis implies. “I didn’t make a mistake,” she said, “I didn’t do too much of this, or not enough of that . . . my cells made mistakes.” As for the “new normal?” For Dr. Allison, it’s learning to embrace imperfections, and making peace with uncertainty. Her message to cancer survivors is to stay positive and look toward better times ahead. That’s advice anyone can benefit from.
I’m never quite sure what to expect when I go to see a speaker whose primary role is as a physician. What I saw and heard from Dr. Allison, was a young woman I might meet on a playground with her kids, or in the grocery store — a woman, speaking from her heart, about her fears, her struggles, her hopes, her survival — the kind of story she wanted to hear from other survivors when she was newly diagnosed. Told as vividly as she tells it, it’s the kind of story that will attract audiences everywhere. She’s a speaker I’m happy to recommend for anyone looking for that result, as well.
To learn more about bringing Dr. Allison to your conference or special event for breast cancer survivors, contact me at 503-699-5031 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Or – just click through to her page on my web site.
Hope Springs Eternal
For those of you still dealing with snow, let me share some good news — my three signs of spring. One, the first daffodil bloomed weeks ago, but now they’re blooming in profusion. The icing on the cake now is that the trees full of pink blossoms are showing off, right along side big white magnolia blossoms. Two, much to my surprise and delight, the tent for Parsons Farm, my neighborhood fruit stand, went up last week. As you may recall, I was very sad last fall when I thought it was closing forever. Well, we have a reprieve. The sale and building on the land have been stalled, and the fruit stand is back — at least temporarily. Woo-Hoo! And three, the robins are back building a nest again, right over the sliding glass door to the deck. I wonder if these are the parents returning or these are last year’s baby robins grown-up now and coming home? It makes me wonder where they’ve been all year . . .
So go out and take a look around for a sign of spring — if nothing else, it’s getting lighter every day — and take care of yourself for your well being and those you love.
For Your Well Being is published bi-weekly. We bring you insider speaker reports, exclusive stories about special events around the country, meeting planner tips, and fun stuff from the worlds of health and well being. Be well and be in the know!
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