In 1997, Kristi Whiteside was attending graduate school in Kansas City for her Master's in public administration in healthcare when life threw an unexpected curve.
During a routine annual physical exam, Kristi’s general practitioner discovered concerning moles on her back, so he had them removed same day for testing. Kristi went back to class that day thinking, “Oh my God, I might have cancer.”
A specialty dermatology lab in Florida quickly confirmed the diagnosis—melanoma, stage two.
Kristi quickly learned that melanoma is the worst kind of skin cancer. There were no treatments available at the time. But Kristi was lucky. She went back for surgery to remove all evidence of the tumor. To this day, she is cancer-free.
“I sometimes feel guilty about being a cancer survivor because there are many people who are not so lucky,” says Kristi. “It’s miraculous that my general practitioner was so good. I feel very fortunate.”
Kristi’s brush with cancer also impacted her career. Shortly after graduating with her MPA, Kristi found clinical trial research to be her calling. Cancer factored into her decision because she felt like she could contribute to advancing research in conditions like melanoma that have no treatments.
Kristi ultimately found herself at a company with a heavy focus in oncology, where she’s continued to work for the past 15 years. She pioneered an effort within her company to translate complex scientific data into a patient-friendly summary of the results for patients and their caregivers.
National Cancer Survivors Day is June 2 and this year Kristi offers advice for other professionals whose lives may be impacted by cancer.
- Seek an expert opinion. Not one doctor will have all the answers, so it’s important to seek the experts and consult with them. “That might mean looking outside your community to experts in other cities,” says Kristi. “You want to talk to the best of the best.”
- Trust your gut. When you’re not feeling like yourself, get it checked out. Don’t dismiss the signs your body is giving you. The earlier the cancer is caught and treated, the better. “I didn’t have any symptoms when I was diagnosed, but I’ve heard plenty of stories about people who ignored the signs for too long.”
- Get your annual check-up. It’s not fun to get a colonoscopy, mammogram or pap smear, but these preventative measures could quite literally save your life. “I am like clockwork for my annual cancer screening,” says Kristi. “I’m convinced that if I had not gone for my physical exam in 1997, I would not be here today.”
Above all, Kristi recommends becoming an advocate for yourself. “Had I not advocated for myself, I don’t know how it would have worked out,” says Kristi.
Kristi Whiteside is senior director, clinical trial data sharing/disclosure at Celgene and resides in Overland Park, KS. Kristi is a member of HBA Kansas City. For information and support about navigating a career and a cancer diagnosis, Kristi recommends checking out Cancer and Careers.
Written by Carolyn Sobczyk