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Dr. Nancy Dawson: A Pioneer in Oncology

Fueled by personal experience and a lifelong commitment to combating cancer, Dr. Nancy Dawson’s innovative spirit and unwavering dedication have shaped the future of oncology.

6 min read

Dr. Nancy Dawson, a seasoned oncologist with a career spanning four decades, has dedicated her life to combating cancer. Her journey into the world of oncology is deeply rooted in personal experience, which led her to have an unwavering commitment to make an impact. From pioneering some of today’s cancer treatments to raising over $44,000 during her time as a member of the BellRinger Community, Dr. Dawson has proven there is nothing that will hold her back when it comes to providing a happier, healthier, and longer future for those impacted by cancer.

A Family History With Cancer

From day one, Dr. Dawson’s career path in oncology was heavily influenced by her family history of cancer. Several of her family members battled various forms of the disease, including ovarian cancer, head and neck cancer, skin cancer, prostate cancer, GI cancer, gallbladder cancer, gastric cancer, and lung cancer. With cancer rooting itself so deeply in her family, Dr. Dawson fights each day so that her children and grandchildren never have to face a cancer diagnosis.

A 40-Year Career of Cancer Evolution and Success

Dr. Dawson has practiced oncology for more than 40 years. Her passion for oncology ignited during her college years, fueled by the memory of her grandmother’s battle with cancer, which ended tragically during her first year of medical school at Georgetown University. After graduating from Georgetown in 1979, she served a 20-year tenure in the United States Army, completing her internship and residency at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where she went on to spend her entire military career.

Over the years, Dr. Dawson has witnessed astounding advancements in oncology, such as immunotherapy and CAR T-cell therapy, which were non-existent during her early medical training. When she started, even treatments like cisplatin, a very common drug used to treat many different cancers, were groundbreaking innovations.

The first patient Dr. Dawson diagnosed was as an older gentleman with prostate cancer during her residency in the internal medicine clinic. At the time, there wasn’t a standard treatment for prostate cancer, nor a dedicated screening for it, which pushed Dr. Dawson to continually think outside of the box to develop new ways to treat his advancing cancer. After long nights in the archives reading about differing drugs and treatment options, she developed numerous plans of action in hopes of finding a treatment option that worked. Because of this commitment to her patient, he survived long past the life expectancy associated with his advanced disease. Some of the treatments developed and tested by Dr. Dawson are currently implemented as standard therapies in prostate cancer care.

Dr. Dawson was the first woman in the United Stated to specialize in prostate cancer. In 1981, she was a part of the team who led the first chemotherapy trial for prostate cancer, and played a pivotal role in founding the original Prostate Cancer Center at Walter Reed. Her contributions to prostate cancer research earned her the prestigious Legion of Merit, the highest non-battlefield award in the military. Her military career culminated with her promotion to colonel, the rank at which she retired, and her appointment as a consultant to the Surgeon General of the Army.

The Power of Personal Patient Connections

From her early days in medical school almost 40 years ago, Dr. Dawson’s approach to patient care set her apart. A natural inclination toward forging personal connections with her patients was not common in the 1980’s, but Dr. Dawson wanted to change that, and her conviction in the importance of empathetic patient relationships proved to be well-founded. Her patients not only appreciated but also deeply valued the personal connections she cultivated with them over the years.

Dr. Dawson’s interactions with patients extended beyond the boundaries of traditional doctor-patient relationships. Instead of check-ups being a feared date on the calendar, patients and their families would come eager to exchange photos with her, give her updates on the more exciting parts of life, and tell stories of their lives beyond their diagnoses. This bond between Dr. Dawson and her patients, based on trust, empathy, and compassion, helped to form the foundation of her medical practice.

The Transformation of Cancer Care

Reflecting on the evolution of cancer treatment, Dr. Dawson recalls a stark contrast between the bleak outlook for patients when she started back in 1980 and the remarkable progress made in recent years. Metastatic prostate cancer, for example, was once considered fatal — but thanks to clinical trials and innovative therapies, patients now have more options and the potential for long-term survival.

Dr. Dawson’s journey underscores the transformative power of medical research and the unwavering commitment of people like her to the pursuit of a cure. Her impact on oncology extends far beyond her patient interactions; she has played a pivotal role in changing the narrative surrounding cancer, shifting it from one of despair to one of hope.

Dr. Dawson’s present-day focus primarily centers around prostate cancer, in addition to other genitourinary cancers such as kidney and bladder cancer. Her pioneering work has been instrumental in advancing treatments and therapies for these conditions. The field of oncology was in its infancy during her medical student days, but over the last 40 years, she has been a witness to the rapid evolution of continued medical advancements in treatment and patient care.

From the Clinic to BellRinger

Motivated by her two sons and five grandchildren, Dr. Dawson joined BellRinger as a volunteer in 2022, where she supported the Barnesville Rest Stop as a medical volunteer, providing on-site non-emergency medical care to Riders. This year, however, her determination led her to become a Virtual Rider for the Ministry of Movement team. She has raised almost $27,000 this year alone in contributions from her friends, family, and mainly, her patients.

As Dr. Dawson thinks about the future of cancer care, she envisions a world where cancer can be effectively prevented, treated, and ultimately eradicated. She recognizes the critical importance of collaboration among researchers, clinicians, and volunteers in the relentless pursuit of progress in the battle against cancer. Her enduring passion and support for cancer research illuminates a path toward a brighter and more hopeful future for cancer patients and their families.

Throughout her 40-year career in oncology, Dr. Dawson has borne witness to profound transformations in the field of cancer care. She has been a driving force in the development of numerous drugs and treatments for various types of cancer. Through advancements in research and participation in clinical trials, the landscape of cancer care has undergone a seismic shift — and although Dr. Dawson has been there through it all, there is no stopping in sight for her.

October 4, 2023

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