When the opportunity arose, Kathy chose to give back to the organization that prolonged her life

Kathy smiles for a portrait.

Last year, as part of the brand rollout for the newly integrated Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, staff reached out to past patients seeking volunteers to participate in an ad campaign featuring survivors and staff from the many branches of care at Fred Hutch: researchers, analysts, nurses, doctors and lab specialists. One of those survivors is Kathy Gill, who was treated at Fred Hutch for breast cancer with proton therapy and surgery. When Kathy received the email about an opportunity to participate, she thought it felt right to give back to the organization that had helped her live longer.

In 2000, Kathy Gill participated in a 6,000-mile motorcycle fundraising ride for Susan G. Komen, not because she had been affected by breast cancer personally, but because it felt right. She did most of it solo and as a fairly new rider. Along the route, people stopped her to tell her their personal stories of breast cancer and to thank her for raising awareness. Through this ride and the group of riders she joined, called WetLeather (it is a Seattle group after all), Kathy developed lifelong friendships, and met her husband, Michael. She also became a motorcycle safety instructor. 

“I had done a small photoshoot of patients at the proton therapy facility in 2019, but this was a much different experience,” says Kathy. She showed up at a cavernous SoDo building filled with lights, food, and people chatting and getting their makeup done. “It was a bubble of energy,” Kathy recalls.

A crew of folks stand amidst lighting and camera equipment, making last minute adjustments prior to Kathy's photoshoot.

The day of the shoot, Kathy discovered a fun surprise - her brother-in-law, Dr. Jesse Fann, was also participating in the photo shoot. “Jesse is a psychiatrist and director of psychology and psychiatry at Fred Hutch,” Kathy explains, “so naturally, we had to get our picture taken together.”

Kathy and Dr. Fann stand shoulder to shoulder smiling for a studio portrait.
Kathy and her brother-in-law, Dr. Jesse Fann, pose for a Fred Hutch ad image.

“The campaign highlights the unification of research and clinical care,” says Cassidy Stevens, Senior Marketing Manager at Fred Hutch. “The photos show multiple combinations of patients, providers and Fred Hutch staff to illustrate how our experts work in real time to provide more options and better outcomes for our patients while accelerating discoveries that prevent, treat and defeat cancer and infectious diseases.”

Kathy’s photos were used in digital and print advertisements and posters at SeaTac airport.

They used the photos of Kathy and Dr. Fann for the campaign because both of Kathy’s breast cancer doctors – Dr. Lupe Salazar and Dr. L. Christine Fang – had retired since treating her.

Kathy and Dr. Fann's portrait with Fred Hutch graphics applied reads 'Hope meet Healing. Lifesaving research. Life-affirming care. That's how we make life beyond cancer a reality. Look Beyond.
Kathy’s final which ran at SeaTac airport.

In 2011, Kathy was diagnosed with a type of breast cancer called lobular carcinoma in situ, considered precancerous. Lobular breast cancer is less common than the ductal variety. “Lumps are common in ductal breast cancer, but lobular cancer typically does not form a tumor that can be felt like a lump,” explains Kathy, who has researched the subject extensively and has blogged frequently about it. “Instead, with lobular cancer, part of the breast may feel like it has become thicker. Often, however, there may be no physical symptoms.”

For six years, she went in for a scan every six months. Then, in 2017, her radiologist thought she had found something. “The general consensus was that it would be small,” recalls Kathy. Out of an abundance of caution, she sought the advice of her brother-in-law, Dr. Fann, who frequently counsels breast cancer patients. He advised Kathy to seek out a second opinion, especially if the cancer turned out to be more complex.

Kathy sought out her second opinion at Fred Hutch and met with Dr. Salazar. “I fell in love with her immediately,” says Kathy. “She’s a firebrand. She laughs. And I was impressed with the organized process at Fred Hutch. I met with and was examined by everyone, and then they consulted with each other before they came up with a protocol. I decided to stay with them.”

During the lumpectomy, her doctors realized just how extensive her cancer was, involving four sentinel lymph nodes in her left breast. “It’s not surprising because of the way lobular cancers grow,” says Janice Kim, MD, our site lead for breast cancer at Fred Hutch, “They invade the breast stroma using a single cell process and so they are often less ‘dense,’ and leave less trace evidence of their presence compared to invasive ductal breast cancer. These characteristics make them less likely to be palpable or appreciated as a lump by patients and their providers. Conventional breast imaging also underestimates lobular cancer, thus yielding more disease at the time of surgery.”

Kathy’s in-situ diagnosis was changed to infiltrating lobular cancer (ILC), a more complex diagnosis that required more intervention. Kathy decided to get a bilateral mastectomy, but she would still need radiation.

Dr. Kim adds: “Despite her aggressive surgery, data has shown that Kathy was at a high risk of a recurrence in the same area in the absence of radiotherapy and therefore comprehensive radiation was offered.”

Kathy found out about proton therapy through a local breast cancer Facebook group called Knowledge is Power. Being a master researcher, she explored proton therapy as an option. She decided it was the way she wanted to go, because she had cancer in her left breast, she had a long family history of heart disease, and protons reduced the risk of radiation dose to her heart and lungs, which would minimize heart complications later in life.

She consulted with Dr. Fang in 2019. They bonded immediately, over shoes. “We both wore Rothy’s, flats made from recycled soda bottles,” Kathy says. “Dr. Fang was extremely empathetic and always dressed to the nines!” Dr. Fang laid out Kathy’s proton therapy options with her, but insurance wouldn’t cover it.

“After a thorough discussion regarding her insurance limitations and her desire to pursue proton therapy, Kathy chose to enroll on our national study that compares proton therapy to standard X-ray therapy in breast cancer patients,” says Dr. Kim. “She felt the mitigation of side effects with protons was quite attractive and was pleased when she was randomized to the proton therapy arm of the trial.”

When asked about her proton treatment, Kathy has nothing but positive things to say. “The whole place is so patient-centered. The radiation therapists were a hoot. They made me laugh and played my music. They made me feel like more than a number. Cancer diagnosis is so emotionally fraught and brings thoughts of death to the forefront, but the people and the facility make you feel warm, invited, soothed. I was happy to come early and unwind and stay after to get myself together for the rest of the day.”

Kathy experienced some side effects, including radiation-induced skin irritation, and lymphedema. Four years later, side effects have resolved, and Kathy is feeling great. There has been no recurrent disease.

Kathy encourages patients to sit in the driver’s seat upon diagnosis. It doesn’t mean you have to do a as much research as she did, but it does mean finding people who can help you and engaging with your care team. “Accept the help that’s offered,” advises Kathy, “but don’t just go along for the ride. Talk to people. Ask questions about your treatment and care. Find support groups. Listen to their stories. And if you have left sided breast cancer, for sure, investigate proton therapy.”

After semi-retiring from a 25-plus-year career as a professor, Kathy was recently asked to come back to the University of Washington to teach an undergraduate technology class, which she says feels invigorating. “It’s inspiring that there are so many young women in engineering now. It’s so different than when I was growing up,” she says. She’s also a motorcycle instructor and likes cooking and reading science fiction and mysteries. She just finished “Killers of a Certain Age” by Deanna Raybourn. It’s about small group of women assassins who are retiring because they have reached their 60s. “It’s madcap but also an interesting observation about aging,” Kathy says.

Kathy and Mike's motorcycles, loaded with gear pull off the road for a photo in front of a winding river through a forested valley and snow covered mountains.
Kathy and Mike smile for a selfie in front of a sign reading 'You are now entering the world famous Alaska Highway, Dawson Creek B.C.
Kathy and Mike on a motorcycle ride in Alaska.

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