They say bad things happen in threes. For UCHealth’s Dr. Regina Brown, there was no way to know how close-to-home it would come. First, it was Dr. Brown’s father, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the mid ’90s. Then, just a few short months after he died following a 10-year battle, it was Dr. Brown’s mother who was told she had uterine sarcoma. And after her mother died from her cancer in 2009, Dr. Brown found herself on the receiving end of life and career altering news: early stage breast cancer.
Today, Dr. Brown is the medical director at the Lone Tree Health Center with a focus on oncology—and more specifically, the breast cancer program. But, the Hawaii native’s journey didn’t originally point toward breast cancer care, or for some time, even medicine. At the end of her high school days, and even into her first year of college, Dr. Brown took to studying microbiology in hopes of pursuing a healthcare career. But as soon as she transferred to the Air Force Academy, it was all about flying. She studied engineering, went to pilot training, and took military leadership positions. When it was time for the soon-to-be captain to choose what to pursue for a higher education degree, the accomplished engineer heard the call for more physicians at her base, listened to some good advice, and followed the tug back toward medicine at St. Louis University in Missouri.
At the time, anyone would’ve told you Dr. Brown would end up in orthopedics specifically working with women athletes. She agreed. But during a stint doing lab research on bones, she uncovered a possible connection for why breast cancer cells might metastases to the bones. Her path once again forked toward oncology, just about the time the then-med student’s father got his cancer diagnosis. “With my dad, I think about how I could have helped him if I knew then what I know now,” Dr. Brown says. “He needed to be treated by an expert and I’m doing everything in my power to be that expert for my patients today.”
Dr. Brown says she really believes it’s the fact that life forced her into the shoes of her patients and their families that gives her the perspective she champions in her care. “Sympathy wasn’t enough for my patients, they need my empathy,” Dr. Brown says. “When they look at me and say that they can’t do anymore, I can look at them and confidently tell them they can.” She can talk the talk because she endured her own breast cancer surgery in 2010 followed by 33 radiation treatments, and five years on the dreaded Tamoxifen, a hormone therapy usually linked with nasty side effects. “I was going to do everything in my power as a patient never to have to revisit my original diagnosis. I dealt with the side effects by listening to my body because if I didn’t take care of my illness it could’ve become much worse.”
It’s been seven years this month since her diagnosis, and now her career is trained on being a best patient advocate in all forms of their care at UCHealth. That includes making her South Denver clinic a fully-functioning arm of the parent breast cancer program at Anschutz Medical Center. Dr. Brown said the close proximity to high-quality medicine can be a major benefit to cancer patients who will have more than 100 doctor visits in the first year alone. Beyond the treatment, making it to appointments can lead to extra stress, a major factor in curing an illness. “From personal experience and research, I understand how stress impacts health,” Dr. Brown says. “Even when patients are busy with appointments, a balance in life needs to be a priority. We know we can decrease cancer with physical activity. Our patients get prescribed exercise as part of their treatment.” The exercise often comes as part of Dr. Brown’s patient connection program, where individuals (both in treatment and in remission) meet up to exercise and build a network of support based on their shared experience. It’s this bonding experience that draws Dr. Brown back to her past.
And long after the treatment ends, and a life seemingly returns to a new normal or a family loses a loved member, Dr. Brown’s patients and their families can be confident that she never saw them as just another chart or case to be discussed. She treated them just like a member of her own family. Knowing what resides in her personal family history, you can bet they got world class medical care along with a heavy dose of compassion.