If you're a new breast cancer patient at UCSF, Dipti Anderson is one of the first people you're likely to meet. As a patient liaison, Anderson helps women navigate the often overwhelming new world of treatments, tests and appointments, alerting them to the many support services available at UCSF and answering their questions.
Equally important, she's a sympathetic ear and a reassuring voice. "I always ease their worries by telling them they've come to the right place," she says.
Sometimes she also shares where her deep confidence in UCSF began — not from her experience as an employee, but as a patient. "I tell them, I've walked that journey that you're on."
In 2003, Anderson was diagnosed at a different hospital with invasive lobular breast cancer, meaning cancer had formed in her milk-producing glands, or lobules, then spread to surrounding tissue. Her community doctors recommended an immediate mastectomy, and suggested she consider having the procedure on both breasts. Anderson hesitated. "I wanted to capture all the options I had," she says. "What if I could have a lumpectomy instead? I thought it would be very helpful to identify the margins of the tumor with an MRI."
Anderson decided to hold off on the mastectomy for the moment. She began chemotherapy and had the first of two lumpectomies, and in the meantime, she spoke with many past and current breast cancer patients, some of whom had been treated at UCSF. Anderson decided she wanted an MRI and a second consultation, and even though she was a member of an HMO, she wanted them from UCSF.
Eventually, she got both. After completing chemotherapy, Anderson met with Dr. Jeanne Quivey, a UCSF radiation oncologist specializing in breast, head and neck cancer.
Quivey explained Anderson's many options in detail. "I was frank enough to ask her what she would choose if she were in my place," remembers Anderson. "She explained that the findings showed lots of scattered DCIS spots [abnormal cells in the lining of a milk duct that can turn into invasive cancers], and that she would elect to have a mastectomy. She took plenty of time and gave her reasons."
Finally feeling reassured that she was doing the right thing, Anderson went ahead with the surgery at her HMO hospital the following month.
On Quivey's advice, she didn't have the procedure on both breasts. "Dr. Quivey said let's treat it and have close follow-up of the healthy side," says Anderson. "She recommended having the follow-up with MRI, and my HMO honored that.
"The consult was very important to me. I feel that's where the future of my health was put on the right path."
Several years later, she found her way back to UCSF, this time on the other side of the patient-provider relationship. "I wanted to go back to work, and I was sitting at home wondering where I could offer my experiences," she says. A stay-at-home mother of two, she'd helped her husband with his real estate brokerage business for years, serving as office manager, bookkeeper and assistant, but didn't have any recent formal work experience. On a whim, she searched the UCSF online job postings, and spotted an opening for an administrative assistant in radiation oncology.
"From the description of the job I thought, this would be perfect for me — to welcome patients and reassure them," says Anderson. "So I dug out my ancient resume and applied. I didn't have a cover letter, so in the space for my cover letter I wrote that I thought I would be perfect for the job because I've walked the journey of a patient and I have tremendous respect for UCSF and what they do."
Two days later, Anderson was on the phone with a practice manager at the hospital. After chatting for some time, the manager said she had another position she thought would be even better for Anderson — assistant supervisor at the Breast Care Center.
It turned out to be a great fit. But a year ago, Anderson switched roles to focus more exclusively on patients, as a patient care liaison at the Center. After diagnosis, she notes, many women don't know what questions to ask, let alone who to ask. "It makes a huge difference to have someone they can reach immediately, even after hours," she says. "I find it quite fulfilling."
Another big reward has been transferring her own care to the Breast Care Center. She credits her oncologist, Dr. Hope Rugo, for uncovering the source of the fatigue and shortness of breath she'd suffered since her treatment: cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that can be a rare after-effect of chemotherapy.
"They were able to diagnose it with all the available cardiology screenings — echocardiograms, treadmill tests — and referred me to a cardiologist who put me on a mild dose of medications that are really improving my health," she says. Since treatment, Anderson is once again tackling her neighborhood hiking trails in Marin.
She also credits her doctors with supporting her in her decision to have breast reconstruction surgery, five years after her mastectomy. "It's hard to put it in the right words, but it was about feeling well," Anderson says. "There's a philosophy at the Breast Care Center to live fully, not to define yourself by the diagnosis. And I had complete trust in the care that UCSF physicians provide, which made it more comfortable to agree to surgery."
Story written in December 2009.
Sierra Tzoore is a freelance writer in San Francisco.
Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center
1600 Divisadero St., Second Floor
San Francisco, CA 94115
Phone: (415) 353-7070
Fax: (415) 353-7050