Part II: Breast Cancer Pathologist, Author of Red Sunshine, Shares Her Story at the 2012 ASCP Annual Meeting
Monday, August 13, 2012
"Even before I was diagnosed with the disease, I always thought about the patients I diagnosed. How would their lives be changing because of a cancer diagnosis? Since I have now seen the other side of the disease, these diagnoses have become even more poignant. I know how hard it is to deal with the fear and uncertainty that can overwhelm you right after diagnosis and what a big difference a meeting with an oncologist or surgeon with a plan for you can make."
—Kimberly Allison, MD
A breast cancer pathologist, Kimberly Allison, MD, unexpectedly became a breast cancer patient. She wrote about her experience in the book Red Sunshine, which turned her terrifying diagnosis into an inspiring memoir. Her diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer in 2008 came two weeks after Dr. Allison was promoted to Director of Breast Cancer Pathology at the University of Washington Medical Center, Seattle. When her life turned upside down, she was only 33 years old and nursing her second child. Throughout her yearlong treatment, Dr. Allison continued to work, helping her from dwelling too much on the disease.
At the 2012 ASCP Annual Meeting, Dr. Allison will serve as a panelist for the general session on women’s health care, Advancing Patient-Centered Care for Women Across Our Globe: The Laboratory is Part of the Puzzle, to be held on Nov. 1. Below is the second of two articles for eNews Briefs from an interview that ASCP Director of Communications Sara Patterson conducted with Dr. Allison about how her perspective about breast cancer patients has changed after breast cancer, how alternative therapies combined with medical treatments can help, and why breast cancer patients benefit from community support.
Q: How has your own breast cancer diagnosis changed how you view the patients you diagnose with breast cancer?
A: Even before I was diagnosed with the disease, I always thought about the patients I diagnosed. How would their lives be changing because of a cancer diagnosis? Since I have now seen the other side of the disease, these diagnoses have become even more poignant. I know how hard it is to deal with the fear and uncertainty that can overwhelm you right after diagnosis and what a big difference a meeting with an oncologist or surgeon with a plan for you can make.
I want to do my job as a pathologist, so that the meeting can occur as fast as possible with the most useful pathologic information possible.
Q: How are you consulted on treatment options by other clinicians for breast cancer patients?
A: As pathologists, our job is to be consultants. When we are part of a multidisciplinary discussion or present at tumor boards, we are the advisers on when to repeat a test that makes a patient a candidate for a specific treatment or to guide a surgeon on whether or not to re-excise a margin. We also have to ensure that tissue is handled appropriately for future tests.
Sometimes I get the opportunity to directly interact with patients. I have met with patients interested in reviewing their pathology slides, and I enjoy this opportunity to directly interact. Because of my personal experience, I often find myself in an advisory role as well.
My medical knowledge helps me to counsel women on both their pathology and possible treatment options, as well as personal aspects of the experience. I try hard to do this in a balanced way, with the perspective of my own experience. I want patients to understand that what worked for me may not be the right answer for their form of breast cancer.
Q: In your book, Red Sunshine, you go through traditional treatment for breast cancer patients (two forms of chemotherapy and radiation), but you also try nontraditional alternatives such as acupuncture, meditation, and naturopathy. Do you recommend alternatives for other breast cancer patients in conjunction with traditional treatment?
A: I think it really depends on the patient and what they feel they can gain from the experience. While I knew that the chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation I was getting would treat my cancer, the rest of me needed healing as well. Whether it is yoga, guided imagery, or a major dietary change, if it makes you feel healthier or in control without interfering with traditional treatment, I think it can be a positive addition. But I would not recommend skipping the conventional first-line treatment. The bottom line is to take care of your physical and mental health during treatment.
One nurse told me to get outside every day, something I did not really envision patients on chemotherapy doing, but it helped me to feel more alive and gave me more energy.
Q: In Red Sunshine, you describe the tremendous support you received from your husband, family and extended family, and friends. Does this make a difference for breast cancer patients?
A: Community is really important for breast cancer patients and cancer patients in general. A cancer diagnosis feels very isolating. Everyone reacts in a different way, but I found that support from my circle really helped me through. I even took charge and assigned people roles like who was going to research wigs or coordinate meals. It was also invaluable to have other survivors to share experiences with.
Cancer centers have an important role in facilitating patients talking to breast cancer survivors and providing other resources, such as meal services. No one should have to go through cancer treatment in isolation.