From Healthcare Advocate to Breast Cancer Patient – And Back

Breast cancer patient Georgia Simpson.
Breast cancer patient Georgia Simpson.

When I was young, I wanted to be a doctor. I was the kid who would cry with my friends when they skinned their knees, and do whatever I could to comfort them. In college I learned there were other jobs in healthcare where I could help people, and I eventually became a healthcare advocate – someone who listens to the needs of communities and works to solve them.

Then, five years ago, I had to become my own advocate when I became a patient at Dana-Farber’s Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers. One night in bed, I felt a tiny lump on my breast while doing a self-exam. Two mammograms three months apart revealed a lump, but a surgeon (not affiliated with Dana-Farber) thought it was “too small” to be cancer and just scheduled a third mammogram, again three months later.

Soon after my meeting with the surgeon, I was driving with my 7-year-old daughter. A radio ad came on about breast cancer, and she looked up at me from the backseat and said, “Mommy, do you have breast cancer?” Of course I told her no, but in my head I was thinking, “I really don’t know.”

She saved my life. Not just by her words, but how those words prompted me to act.

As soon as I got home, I called the clinic and said that I wanted them to remove the lump right away, because I didn’t know what it was – and neither did they. They did a lumpectomy.

A few days later, my phone rang while I was at a memorial service for a cousin who had just passed away from colorectal cancer. It was the surgeon, who said, “I’m so glad we took that lump out, because it’s cancerous.” I went home numb from the news and bawled on my husband’s shoulder. He was my rock and said, “We got this!” I then called a friend who was a breast cancer survivor, and she told me, “You’re going to Dana-Farber. I’m calling my doctor now.” I got an appointment right away.

From that point on, I had that kind of support each step of the way. My new doctors in the at the Susan F. Smith Center supported my inclination to act now, and gave me several treatment options. Although I did not have another lump, I wound up having a second surgery so the Dana-Farber surgeon could have his own detailed look at the extent of my disease. In consultation with my care team and my husband, I decided the best treatment option for me.

My nurse practitioner recommended that I participate in a support group for breast cancer patients called Facing Forward, and it was a great chance to talk to other women shortly out of treatment. Dana-Farber clinicians presented insights and findings to the group, and survivors shared their experiences and the path they were continuing to wellness.

For me, that path included massage therapy at Dana-Farber’s Leonard P. Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies. At my first visit, it was clear the massage therapist had communicated with my doctors and nurses and knew my whole situation. This was an extension of my treatment; the therapist not only knew which areas of my body needed most care, but educated me about what was happening and what I could expect to happen – next and over time. It’s been five years since my treatment, and I’m still coming to the Zakim Center for massage therapy once a month. They may never get rid of me.

In my professional career, first with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and now with the Department of Health and Human Services, I have worked both with people living in underserved communities hoping to gain access to the best healthcare options, and with healthcare institutions to provide that care in culturally meaningful ways. This summer, as the “face” of a Dana-Farber community advertising campaign on buses, subway billboards, and on the radio, I was able to reach out to communities in a new way.

I’ve been very open about my experience in the hope that it will encourage others to actively participate in their own health and healthcare decisions. I have talked to women about being diligent in knowing their bodies, because by doing so they can better tell their clinicians when something changes. I’ve stressed the importance of doing breast self-examinations on a regular basis, because early detection gives you the best chance of survival. And if you are diagnosed, I’ve emphasized, don’t go through this alone. Find someone who can be there for you.

Through it all, I have learned that tomorrow is never promised to anyone – so you should live today as best you can. That is the motto I try to live by, because I don’t know what the future will bring. None of us do. But it helps me to know that my Dana-Farber team continues to be the wind beneath my wings, helping me realize that I not only can survive after cancer, but that I can thrive.

Learn more about treatment for breast cancer from the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers