Pink Ribbons & Green Dragons
An interview with:
Dr. Laura Lawson, MD
Breast Surgical Oncology at the Nashville Breast Center
· Originally from Charleston, West Virginia
· Went to college at West Virginia University
· Attended Vanderbilt Medical School
· Lived in Nashville since 1994
· Medical Director of the St. Thomas Breast Cancer Program
· Clinical Faculty in the Department of Surgery at Vanderbilt University
· Yoda and Dragons are some of her favorite things
How did you get started in medicine?
I have always been interested in women's issues (such as women's healthcare and women's social and political issues). When I was in college I did a lot of volunteer work at the women's rape and domestic violence center in Morgantown, WVA. I really enjoyed being able to help women during crisis points in their lives. I found that I was good at remaining calm in difficult situations. At the time I was a Chemistry major because that major had room for lots of electives that allowed me to take really interesting classes that I would not have a chance to take otherwise, such as anthropology, ancient Egyptian history, billiards, and other fun classes that were a delight. However, I discovered that I didn't want to be a chemist and work in a lab. I actually considered Law School instead of Medical School, but then decided that medicine would be a better fit. When I started at Vanderbilt University Medical School I didn't know what I wanted to do so during my rotations I was able to find the things that I didn't want to do. Surgery really stood out as a natural fit for me, but I also considered Obstetrics and Gynecology. After a rotation spent delivering babies, I could see that in the operating room was where I really wanted to be. I completed five years of general surgery residency at VUMC and then a breast surgical oncology fellowship at Vanderbilt as well.
How did you end up focusing on breast surgery?
While at Vanderbilt I was fortunate to be able to help start the breast surgery fellowship program. At the time, most surgeons who did breast surgery were trained as general surgeons or surgical oncologists and had some breast specific training. Breast Fellowships were developing across the country and I was on the front end of that really coming together here. As part of my fellowship I was able to work with Dr. Pat Whitworth at Nashville Breast Center, where I currently practice. I am still a part of the fellowship program at Vanderbilt and really enjoy helping train young surgeons. I realized that breast surgery brought everything together for me-I could be involved with women’s health, help guide patients through difficult situations and enjoy the technical aspects of biopsies and surgery.
Tell us about the culture of Nashville Breast Center:
We try from the outset for it to be a warm and welcoming place that people can easily access and find information about so that when they walk in the door they feel that they are in the right place. We are set up to be as efficient with care as we can. One thing that is unique about our practice is that the majority of people that are working here have been here together for years (15+ for many). That is unique in the medical world. Our clinic really has a sense of community and is a place that people like to work at and be a part of something special. I think that speaks volumes about our practice and the dedication of our staff. The Nurse Practitioners are fabulous and have been taking care of breast patients for a really long time. They are experts in the care that is given here so that when we as doctors come into the room the patient is already informed and ready to hear from us, and then they help continue that care for years to come.
What is your approach with your patients as they are going through such a difficult time in their life?
I seek to reassure patients from the outset and counter the negative thoughts they have coming into the initial consultation. For instance, almost everyone has heard of someone not surviving breast cancer. So they may come in very anxious and scared, not realizing that the majority of women do very well and survive and go on to live very full lives. I try to give them a better perspective from the beginning. Breast cancer used to be treated as a "one size fits all" and it was an emergency and everything needed to be done immediately to everyone. Now we treat every woman as an individual, with their treatment based on the biology of the cancer. Each woman’s needs are different and we work very hard to address them specifically with all aspects of their care.
What impact does the month of October have on Breast Cancer Awareness?
Several years ago we did a special program at my son's middle school to help kids understand why we wear pink and why they see it on football players and on the TV. We helped them understand that when the Titans are playing you wear your Titans jersey and wear their colors to support the home team. We made the comparison to show the kids that by wearing pink in October that they are supporting all the women that have had breast cancer and their families. We asked the kids (5th-8th graders) if they knew someone with breast cancer and many hands went up throughout the gym. This really helped the kids to understand what is happening during the month of October on a much larger scale, and the part they can play, as well as one way we can all get involved and show our support.
There are so many diseases and cancers... why has breast cancer received such a spotlight?
The statistics are that 1 out of every 8 women will have breast cancer during her lifetime. As the population continues to grow, just think of all the people who will be touched by a woman who has had the disease. For many women their breasts are an important part of what makes them feel feminine, or part of who they are as women and mothers and breast cancer strikes at their core. I speak with other physicians who take care of other types of cancers and sometimes it comes with a bit of frustration that other cancers don't get the spotlight the way breast cancer does. In the US, over 30 women die of heart disease for every 1 that dies of breast cancer. You would think that heart disease would have a bigger focus, but it just hasn't had the attention that breast cancer has had. I have talked with so many women over the years that are so much more afraid of breast cancer than they are of heart disease. Breast cancer has gone from a subject that was taboo and not talked about to a disease in the forefront. The Susan B. Komen Foundation has helped bring it to greater attention, but the increase in breast cancer awareness and research is really quite amazing.
What motivates you to do what you do?
I find it an honor and privilege to help women as they go through what for many of them is the worst time in their lives. To be able to support for them as a doctor and a friend during this time is really a gift and I love being able to be a part of their care. The treatment of breast cancer has come such a long way in recent years that we are able to walk them through the process and help them prepare for their recovery and the many years of life ahead. Being a part of this is such a wonderful thing.
How do you try and maintain a balanced life outside of work?
It is really important for my husband and I as working professionals to have help. I could not do what I do without my nanny who is wonderful and has been with us for over 10 years. She helps with the house and kids and keeps things running smoothly. Also, Lisa, my medical assistant has been with me for 15 years. She is amazing at anticipating the needs of our patients and what I need to take care of them. We work so well together and that helps us to care for patients in a more efficient and effective manner so that they can start putting their breast cancer behind them and get on with their lives and I can get home to my boys. I have been practicing so long that I see my patients everywhere around Nashville ... at my sons schools, at church and around town. I love to read, snow ski, and travel.
Tell us about your family-
In each of my exam rooms I hang photos of my children and family trips doing fun activities. This helps me to connect personally with patients even before I walk into the room for the first time. I have many patients who have watched my boys grow up. It warms my heart when they ask about my kids even before we talk about their breast cancer. I have 2 sons. Wade is 15 years old and is a sophomore at Hillsboro High school. He plays basketball, baseball and swims. Luke is 13 and is in 8th grade at JT Moore. He plays football, baseball and he swims and wrestles. They both play the piano. My husband, William, is a doctor too. He is in Pulmonary/ Critical Care at Vanderbilt. We just visited London at the end of the summer to celebrate my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. My son Luke and I have the same birthday in March.
Who are some of your medical influences?
Dr.James O’Neil- He was the chair of the general surgery department at Vanderbilt. He was my mentor and advisor. He was such a gentlemen and had an amazing way with patients and families. He set a great example of being not only a great surgeon, but managing relationships and getting along with patients and colleagues with excellence.
Dr. Pat Whitworth- he was one of my mentors when I was a fellow. He taught me to embrace new ideas and technology and think outside the box. He helped me to see that we must always be willing to explore new ways of doing things and not getting stuck just because it has always been done that way. Now it has come full circle and we are partners again.
What methods do you employ to keep improving your knowledge and experience?
I always make an effort to attend at least one of our national American Society of Breast Surgeons meetings each year. It is so good to talk to colleagues and see how healthcare is always developing. The personal interaction is always better in the room with others rather than just reading a journal. My greatest source of ongoing education is our weekly tumor board. We pull together all the various providers and help each other to figure out the best course of treatment for each individual patient. It is made up of radiologists, pathologists, medical oncologists, surgeons, radiation oncologists, genetic counselors and our nurse navigators. Each of these participants gives valuable insight so that we can deliver the very best care possible. This really elevates the level of care for our patients, and we learn so much from each other in that environment.
What advice would you give to a woman who has just learned that she has breast cancer?
Take a deep breath. It's going to be OK. We are going to get through this. Most women do very well. The survival rates for early stage breast cancer are excellent. It will be difficult... but you can do it. We will take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and you can make it. You will move forward, and become a survivor, and go on to live your best life.
Getting to Know the Doc
Historical fiction is my favorite genre.
Kristin Hannah is my new favorite author.
With two boys we watch a lot of action/adventure
Batman and Jurassic Park
Hobbs & Shaw
Your office has a green theme… what is that about?
Favorite color is green and has been forever… green scrubs, green shoes, wear green all the time. You could ask anyone about me and they would know about the green theme. If I don't wear my green scrubs people don't recognize me. I probably have more green clothes than everyone put together.
Yoda and dragons are some of my favorite green things.
Halloween is my favorite holiday. I have clothes, jewelry and socks for every holiday and season.
I think in a former life I must have been a preschool teacher.
What amazing adventures have you been on?
Love riding rollercoasters- Rip Ride Rockit at Universal... I rode it 16 times!
Love tree skiing! Skiing is the best when I have the fun and exhilaration of the trees.
What hobbies would you like to get into if you had the time?
I love to color- markers in coloring books. I have done that since I was a child.
Love to build legos… yes, my own sets of legos. I have lego yodas, dragons, Halloween and Christmas sets.
Favorite Vacation Destination?
Big Sky Montana & Brighton in Utah for snow skiing.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Favorite Restaurants in Nashville?
Tokyo- in Green Hills (hibachi grill and sushi)
The Painted Cupcake
Edleys- love the side dishes
Anywhere with a sundried tomato bagels
Among your friends, what are you best known for?
Green & Halloween and love of Diet Coke
And doing whatever crazy activity my boys are involved in. I still bear the scar on my neck from an airsoft gun battle when I took my son to Nashville Airsoft for his birthday two years ago.