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  • Then and now: Early Susan F. Smith Center patient explores breast cancer through film, comedy

    Debbie DorseyDebbie Dorsey today (photo courtesy iVideo Boston) 

    Debbie Dorsey still remembers the anxiety she felt when a routine mammogram in 1997 revealed she had breast cancer. As a filmmaker, the Boston resident was used to heavily researching her subjects; as one of the first patients in the Susan F. Smith Center for Women's Cancers at Dana-Farber, she learned everything she could about her disease — and was still terrified of what awaited her.

    "That first afternoon walking into Dana-Farber I was so scared — I was scared of chemotherapy, and I was scared of what I imagined I was going to see," she wrote in a first-person article appearing in Turning Point, the official magazine of the Susan F. Smith Center. "I thought I would see great suffering, but what I saw was a lot of warmth and compassion."

    The surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy she endured, as well as cardiac issues and other challenges that she has faced since, have been difficult, but Dorsey had such positive experiences with her caregivers and fellow patients that she has devoted her time and talents to helping lessen the burden of fear for others facing cancer.

    After Dorsey lost her hair, she made a call to acclaimed photographer Elsa Dorfman, and asked her to take her picture, along with two "chemo buddies," Libby Levinson and Carol Potoff. Dorfman loved the idea. The resulting collaboration produced a book and a film by the same name. No Hair Day is a powerful documentary about the photo session with Dorfman, directed by Dorfman's husband and business partner, Bob Burns. The film aired on PBS and was lauded by viewers and critics.

    Humor was a big part of the appeal of No Hair Day, so Dorsey took comedy classes and created an entire stand-up act around her cancer experience. Although she had no prior background as a comic, she started making public appearances in this role and found it therapeutic for herself and other cancer patients. "I always wanted curly hair, but mine was long and straight," she explained in one joke. "It grew back curly after chemotherapy, and when a woman stopped me in the street and said how much she liked it, I said, 'Thank you, I had it done at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.'"

    Harold Burstein, MD, PhD with Debbie Dorsey in 1998Dr. Hal Burstein with Debbie Dorsey in 1998 

    Although Dorsey still sees her original Dana-Farber breast oncologist — Harold Burstein, MD, PhD — for biannual checkups, much has changed in breast cancer treatment since the late 1990s. Dorsey's surgery included removing 19 lymph nodes, but Burstein says more advanced testing developed since then would allow for a much less invasive operation and less of the lymphedema (swelling of the lymph nodes) and arm mobility issues she has dealt with since.

    "Today we do a sentinel node biopsy to reveal the first few nodes to which cancer was likely to spread, and in her case we might have only had to remove one or two," says Burstein. "In addition, we now test for HER2, an epidermal growth factor that determines which therapy is best; if she was HER2 positive, we would have given her Herceptin in addition to standard chemotherapy."

    In addition to partnering with her husband to raise two children and start a film production company, Dorsey has seen her care plan evolve. Her treatment originally called for five years of the anti-cancer drug Tamoxifen, but during that interval we learned that longer durations of treatment offered additional benefit. The Susan F. Smith Center now partners with the Cardio-Oncology Program at Brigham and Women's Hospital to offer the most specialized cardiac care possible to those patients who require it. "I was so lucky to be treated by doctors who not only show great compassion, but continue to be on the cutting edge of medical technology" reflects Dorsey. "I can't thank them enough."

    Back in 1998, Dorsey wrote in Turning Point that "breast cancer has changed my life. I feel like I've been given a second chance." Through her movie, comedy, and many speaking appearances at high schools and other venues, she is using that second chance to help others gain a better understanding about what having cancer entails.

    Learn more about how we diagnose and treat breast cancer at the Susan F. Smith Center's Breast Oncology Program. 

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