Breast Cancer Experience Offers Six Degrees of Separation

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By Pamela Schlembach, M.D., MD Anderson Regional Care Center in The Woodlands

She was the proverbial needle in a haystack, but what a find she was.

Breast cancer.jpgLast October, at the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Houston - an annual event that attracts more than 35,000 participants - I met a breast cancer survivor who I will never forget.  

Though I did not treat her or know her before the race, we are connected in so many ways. We met by sheer coincidence but neither Jimmie Sue, the survivor, nor I took the encounter as a fluke.

Here's what happened: After the Houston Race for the Cure, as thousands of runners and walkers cooled down, a survivor randomly asked me to take a photo of her with her family as they celebrated her life after breast cancer. We exchanged pleasantries and then I found out that she was treated at MD Anderson in 1977 for breast cancer.

She told me that she was under the care of Dr. Eleanor Montague, one of MD Anderson's great radiation oncologists, now retired. Not only was Dr. Montague a great physician and accomplished researcher, but she was a true advocate for her patients, breast conservation and someone I work to emulate in my own practice at The Woodlands.

I told Jimmie Sue that, as a radiation oncology resident, I received the Eleanor Montague Distinguished Resident Award from the American Association of Women Radiologists and had interviewed Dr. Montague for a special report on her career. We shared many stories and memories about this remarkable woman.

Jimmie Sue told me that she had been a part of the groundbreaking clinical trial on lumpectomy vs. mastectomy. This was a trial that led to a new standard of care in breast cancer and as a result, millions of women today with early stage breast cancer do not have to lose a breast when they are diagnosed with breast cancer. I thanked Jimmie Sue for having the courage to participate in that trial and how she made a difference for so many patients.
As we were saying goodbye, Jimmie Sue and her daughter both mentioned how wonderful and amazing it was that we just happened to meet in a sea of pink that morning. They smiled and said perhaps it was a divine appointment for us all. Perhaps, indeed.

I think a lot about the encounter, about Jimmie Sue and the thousands of women like her who have participated in clinical trials so we can advance our knowledge of breast cancer and other cancers. We owe these ladies a great deal of gratitude and respect for their willingness to consider future generations and ask what they can do to help end this disease through research advancements.

You just never know who you are going to meet and how your paths may cross. Keep your eyes and heart open for such an experience.

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