The blond woman in the flowing red dress who graces UCSF’s “Redefining Possible” billboards and ads in and around San Francisco – you’ve probably seen her, but you likely don’t know her story.
Last week, Laura Holmes Haddad visited the UCSF Imaging facility at 1725 Montgomery Street, and shared her journey from terrifying breast cancer diagnosis to three years of radiant survival. She also talked about how she wants to help others.
“I never had a health issue before my diagnosis,” said Holmes Haddad. “And I was totally unprepared. I want others to be aware of the type of mindset and teamwork that helped save my life.”
Holmes Haddad realizes that her outcome was the result of a remarkable convergence of opportunities, effort, and will. In overcoming her illness, she worked with the world’s leading medical teams, and had the active care of family and friends who supported her and championed her well-being. Holmes Haddad also credits her own self-advocacy, not to overemphasize her perseverance, but to encourage other patients.
She hopes to provide tools and perspective to patients who may face a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. To that end, she has written a book, This is Cancer: Everything You Need to Know, From the Waiting Room to the Bedroom, which will be released on October 18.
What’s critical: Take time for yourself – don’t delay!
Holmes Haddad was the mother of two young children, ages 14 months and 4 years old, when she was diagnosed with breast cancerand given three to five years to live. That was four years ago.
When she first started noticing her body was changing, she chalked her breast discomfort up to lactation and the feeling of being unwell to the demands so many young mothers’ experiences. She had the lingering sense she should do something about not feeling well, but procrastinated, as she pointed out, “…like so many others!” The message she wants to spread now? “Do not put off your health. Take time to be screened and to see your doctor.”
Assemble a great team – and work hard to get the care you need
Self-advocacy and the support of a willing community were critical to Holmes Haddad’s success. After she was diagnosed, she set her sights on treatment at UCSF. “I wanted to ensure I had the brightest, most talented medical teamworking on my behalf.” When she let her circle of family and friends know that UCSF was her goal, they advocated to help her begin treatment. Later, when her UCSF oncologist informed her about the clinical trial that ultimately stopped her cancer, Holmes Haddad’s persistence was tested when she had to repeatedly apply before acceptance. “I was lucky to have a strong community, and to have lots of personal support so I could really take care of myself. But what about patients who don’t have that extra help? I’m hopeful the book can teach patients how to get the best care and treatment regardless of their circumstances.”
Today, after having stared death in face, Holmes Haddad says she focuses on what is essential. How does she define that? She says, “Your kids are essential. Your family. Saying ‘no’ more often.” Then with a smile, she adds, “And saying ‘yes.’”
As a result, she says she is more fun as a parent and kinder to everyone she encounters. She is also more aware of the everyday struggles of chronically ill patients as well as their caregivers.
Holmes Haddad is deeply grateful to those who helped her and remembers the tender moments offered by her care team across UCSF. One was a UCSF Imaging tech, to whom she revealed her feelings of self-consciousness about how she looked after she lost her hair during chemotherapy. In his thick Irish accent he said, “Laura, they aren’t staring at you because your bald head makes you look funny, they are staring because they think you’re beautiful.” His profoundly kind words helped sustain her as she marched forward, not knowing her eventual positive outcome.
And she had the opportunity in a private meeting to express her gratitude to Dr. Alan Ashworth, who leads the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center. Ashworth has spent most of his career focusing on the BRCA2 gene mutation of which Holmes Haddad is a carrier. “I shook his hand and I told him, ‘Thank you for saving my life,” she said, and there was not a dry eye in the room.
When we met Holmes Haddad in person, we experienced first-hand the power she has to make others feel great. Said one of our techs, “I just want to be around her.” She exudes values we all can aspire to–kindness, humility, generosity, being in the moment.
In February, Vice President Joe Biden visited UCSF and met Holmes Haddad. “His kindness, intellect, and determination to eradicate cancer was a privilege to witness,” said Holmes Haddad. “And it was an honor to represent the patient voice to him and Dr. Jill Biden at UCSF.”
We are honored that she chose to say “yes” to an interview, and inspired by her example of saying “no” to things that do not make each day a richer one.