When the Doctor Becomes a Patient

Kimberly Allison, M.D. never expected to be lookin at her own malignant cells under a microscope.
Cancer survivor Kimberly Allison, M.D.

Before the bad news came, life was good for Dr. Kimberly Allison and her family. It was early 2008, and Mercer Island resident Allison, then 33, had just been appointed to her dream job: director of Breast Pathology at the University of Washington Medical Center. New baby Henry, seven months old, was doing well. Four-year-old Maddy was enjoying her new little brother—on most days, anyway. Her husband, Ryan Allison, had just opened a new restaurant, and Allison was training for a half-marathon.

Allison had noticed an unusual firmness in one breast, but felt certain it was nothing; she was nursing, and her breasts had changed. Nothing to be concerned about, she thought. She had always been healthy, and there was no family history of breast cancer. As a precaution, though, Ryan wanted her to get a mammogram.

Allison’s mammogram, as is often the case with nursing mothers, was unreadable. The breasts become dense during nursing and look like big white blobs in an X-ray, says Allison. “It’s impossible to tell what’s going on.”

When it took longer than she expected to get the results, Allison began to feel uneasy. What she didn’t know was that her colleagues were unprepared for what they found.

An ultrasound yielded the same results. Although Allison was still certain there was nothing to worry about, she decided to have a biopsy. Given her line of work, she thought it would be interesting to see her own cells under a microscope.

Allison personally delivered the sample to her pathology colleagues for analysis. Confident about the outcome, she went about her day. When it took longer than she expected to get the results, Allison began to feel uneasy. What she didn’t know was that her colleagues were unprepared for what they found. The news was dire: Allison had Stage 3 breast cancer.

“It was a shock,” says Allison. “‘I am going to die,’ was my first reaction.” In Red Sunshine, a compelling and moving memoir, she shares her unexpected journey from physician to Stage 3 cancer patient to cancer survivor. Chemotherapy was especially effective for Allison, and she’s been cancer-free since late 2008. “Writing the book was an important part of my therapy,” Allison says. “It kept me sane.”

As a patient, Allison learned some key things. “If you notice something, don’t ignore it and don’t delay,” she says. “Delay in my case meant the cancer would have quickly progressed to Stage 4. If you have cancer, slow down, put yourself first, prioritize to do what you love and learn to live in new ways. You don’t have to sit at home. When you have cancer, you are getting medical therapy, so your illness is being addressed. But you have to take care of your inner self, too.” Allison maintained her inner calm by learning yoga and meditation. She admits that as a physician, she was accustomed to being in charge, but as a patient, “I felt out of control. That was really scary.” But she learned a lot about herself during that time, she says, including that she loves mini vacations with her husband—just the two of them. “Doctors should definitely prescribe more vacation as part of therapy,” she says with a laugh. ✚

An Excerpt from Red Sunshine
University of Washington Medical Center director of breast pathology Kimberly Allison, M.D.’s memoir, Red Sunshine (Hatherleigh Press, 2011), tells a compelling tale of what happens when a doctor becomes a patient

"I feel like I am suddenly leading a double life. There are moments of relative normalcy—I am giving the kids a bath in extra-bubbly water or reading Goodnight Moon. I can cook dinner. I can dress myself or talk to people about things in general. But then I slip into the surreal world of my potentially limited future—a world full of fear and cruel irony. Is this really happening to me? I study this disease—I actually have given lectures on the exact type of breast cancer I have. But I am trapped in this nightmare for real. I am under the microscope instead of looking through it this time."

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