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Business school professor given new purpose after cancer care

DALLAS – Oct. 9, 2019 – On Wendy Casper’s first day at the Simmons Cancer Center at UT Southwestern she met a fellow breast cancer patient, a volunteer.

The woman said her treatment was done, but she came back as a volunteer because she missed the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“I thought, ‘Well, that’s weird. Who would want to go back?’ But I get it now. I go over to the Simmons Cancer Center, and I feel comforted,” Ms. Casper said.

The Simmons Cancer Center helped her beat breast cancer and continue her career as a Professor and Associate Dean in the College of Business at the University of Texas at Arlington.

On Friday, Ms. Casper’s last day of infusion chemotherapy, she enjoyed a surprise reunion with Mary Ellen Garland, the volunteer who helped her on her first day of treatment. When told that Ms. Garland was there to see her, Ms. Casper’s jaw dropped and eyes widened.

“Oh, my God!” she gasped, bringing her hand to her mouth. “I would love to see her!”

Ms. Garland entered, and the two women embraced in a hug that exemplified the support cancer survivors give each other and the bonds built at the Simmons Cancer Center.

“I get it now, what you said to me last year, when you said that you came back here,” Ms. Casper said as the two clasped hands. “I feel connected now to everybody that understands this journey, and everybody here has been so good to me – and it all started with that day I met you almost a year ago.”

“This is where health care is supposed to be,” Ms. Garland said with a wide smile.

“That’s definitely what I found. So many times I realized, I never had this kind of medical care before,” Ms. Casper said. “I never had this level of attention and care for my well-being.”

Ms. Garland said it meant a lot to hear that her volunteer work helped someone else, and that someone remembered her from her first, overwhelming day as a cancer patient.

“It’s always gratifying because you are in such a spin when you first have this happen,” she said. “You don’t remember anything. You just think, everybody’s nice, everybody’s trying to help you, so to be remembered specifically is very gratifying. … It is a very supportive environment. That is truly what I think this thing is all about.”

The reunion was a happy ending to Ms. Casper’s yearlong fight against cancer that came on suddenly. More than a decade of mammograms showed nothing, and Ms. Casper had no history of breast cancer in her family, so a diagnosis of breast cancer in late 2018 “came out of nowhere.”

A doctor in Tarrant County told her, “I hate to do this over the phone, but you have cancer.”

Staff at the first hospital she spoke with seemed less focused on her as a patient and more focused on the reconstructive breast surgery she would eventually need. She wanted a team that treated her differently from this. People kept recommending Dr. Marilyn Leitch, a breast surgeon at the Simmons Cancer Center. Dr. Leitch is a Professor of Surgery and holds the S.T. Harris Family Distinguished Chair in Breast Surgery, in Honor of A. Marilyn Leitch, M.D.

“Everyone kept saying this is the best breast surgeon,” she said. “The day I came to see her my life changed, and it was like, ‘Everything’s going to be ok.’ My anxiety was way down, and I just felt so much safer. I felt like everything was going to be ok.”

The doctors and staff focused on her as a person and moved to make her treatment as quick and easy as possible. She said she felt like a priority when she could hear the scheduler working the phones to advance her appointments.

“She kept saying, ‘Escalate, escalate. She’s a new diagnosis, she needs to get in right now.’ She was on the phone doing that for like 40 minutes, and she got off the phone and had all these appointments for me,” Ms. Casper said. “I was just completely overwhelmed with gratitude.”

Wendy Casper and her husband Roger Duval
Wendy Casper and her husband Roger Duval

Ms. Casper’s husband, Roger Duval, said he also noticed how attentive the entire team was.

“They made sure we were introduced to the nurses,” he said. “There was just this complete package feeling that we were definitely with competent people who were totally focused on your needs. Every single individual we interacted with has been focused and competent and careful.”

Ms. Casper had chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery to treat the cancer. She temporarily lost her hair to chemotherapy but did not get the mental fogginess of “chemobrain” – a side effect that she feared would interfere with her scholarly work as a professor.

She said the cancer team helped her with each step of treatment.

“People have just taken care of me in a way that I had never experienced before in the medical system,” she said. “It really helped keep my spirit up. I really felt like I had really been cared for as a human being.”

Ms. Garland was part of that, and she was there at the beginning – as an example of someone giving back. Ms. Casper said she is already at work on her own way of giving back. Ms. Casper, who has a Ph.D. in organizational psychology, studies ways to improve the health and well-being of employees. She said she will now study how cancer patients in outpatient treatment juggle their schedule and cancer care.

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 22 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 15 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,500 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 105,000 hospitalized patients, nearly 370,000 emergency room cases, and oversee approximately 3 million outpatient visits a year.