For Carla Dawson, healthcare is both a calling and a career. As chief people officer for Texas Health Resources, she leads HR area for the system that supports the over 24,000 employees who provide care to people in communities across North Texas. Caring for the caregivers is an important role, Carla says, as is self-care. By keeping herself healthy, she knows she can be at her best to help others.
So, when Carla received a reminder card late last year to make an appointment for her annual mammogram, an important screening tool to help find breast cancer, she didn’t hesitate. Yes, North Texas was in the midst of a COVID-19 surge and — like most people in healthcare — her schedule was beyond full. Neither of those things prevented her from making her health a priority.
Carla’s teammates at work were supportive: Knowing that Texas Health encourages women to get timely mammograms and annual exams, she told her manager, Texas Health CEO Barclay Berdan, that she needed to switch her days in the office to accommodate her appointment. “He said, ‘Absolutely, you need to do that,” she said.
“I remember looking back on it and saying ‘I need to do this’ and not realizing how much those words were true,’” said Carla, 50.
‘Are you serious about this right now?’
With no history of breast cancer in her family and no symptoms, Carla expected the usual normal results.
Instead, her 3D mammogram showed that there was a problem. Carla went back for more tests. After a biopsy, a pathologist confirmed that Carla had an early stage of breast cancer—but those were the words: “breast cancer.”
“There have definitely been tears, days when I was saying ‘Are you serious about this right now?'” Dawson said. “I definitely had to come to terms with it personally.”
Carla had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), a cancer in milk ducts positioned next to her chest wall. It was non-invasive, meaning it had not spread into nearby breast tissue. But if untreated, according to the American Cancer Society, DCIS can metastasize, meaning it could spread into other parts of her body.
The on-time mammogram was not just a good idea — it may have saved Carla’s life.
Treating Her Breast Cancer
Carla chose to have a lumpectomy, which is a surgery to remove the tumor and some tissue around it. The results of the biopsy confirmed that delaying her preventative care might have been deadly: Carla’s physicians on the medical staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas determined that the cancer was larger than originally thought. It was also a high-grade carcinoma, meaning it was more likely to spread than first believed.
Surgeries and four months of treatment followed. Carla experienced the fears and anxiety that come with the diagnosis. “There have definitely been tears,” she said. “The first day I went to do radiation, I was thinking ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m having to do this.’”
She turned to friends, family, her teams at work and her faith for support. She underwent six weeks of radiation treatments, five days a week.
And she wouldn’t change a thing.
‘If it’s time, you need to go do it’
Delaying care doesn’t mean delaying illness, she said. After a year of COVID-19, which shattered lives, separated families and tore apart plans, many women just didn’t make the time for their preventative care.
That concerns Carla.
“You think you have time and everything is OK,” Dawson said. “But you don’t know everything is OK until you check it.” She shares her story with employees, patients, friends and family, urging women to get their mammograms–no matter what.
Though the vast majority of women have mammograms that show no irregularities, those who do have life-saving care available to them through Texas Health. Carla was declared cancer-free on March 10, a day she will always remember.
Faith, an important part of Carla’s life, helped her stay strong throughout her diagnosis and treatment. There were times of prayer and reflection when Carla — who also battles lupus — turned to James 1:2-4, a Bible passage that has become a mantra for her:
“Consider it pure joy, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Carla’s perseverance has been tested, as has her faith. But getting through her battle with breast cancer is a testament to both.
“It definitely it comes in waves, but I trusted the care I was getting. It’s such an unknown. That, I think, is probably the hardest thing. It definitely proved after this year (during the COVID-19 pandemic) that I can deal with trials.”
Click here to schedule your mammogram at a Texas Health breast center near you.