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Paying it forward: surviving breast cancer and serving patients

jogging ladies

A few years before she became a breast oncology nurse navigator at Methodist Dallas Medical Center, Linda Gage was a patient facing her own daunting diagnosis. After Linda noticed an unusual lump under her arm, doctors confirmed she had Stage IIIC breast cancer.

"I remember thinking, 'Am I going to die? Am I going to be too sick to live by myself? Am I going to lose my job, my house?," Linda says.

At the time, Linda was a registered nurse in the emergency department at Methodist Dallas and hadn't missed a day of work in more than a decade. She braced herself for an aggressive treatment plan that included surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.

"I remember that first appointment after my biopsy. My brain felt like it was swirling; I felt like I was in a whirlwind," she recalls. "I would hear something my doctor said and get distracted on that thought and not hear anything else."

After eight months of treatment, she completed her last dose of radiation in 2011. Today, she remains cancer-free and draws on her own story of survival in her role as a nurse navigator for breast cancer patients.

I did it. It's doable.

When Linda was undergoing chemotherapy, doctors and nurses often asked her to visit with a patient who was struggling to cope. She began spending more and more time with other patients during her own treatment.

She didn't realize it at the time, but those days spent supporting other patients served as the basis for her future. Now working as a nurse navigator, she guides breast cancer patients through every step of their journey from diagnosis to recovery.

"I always tell them I am a breast cancer survivor. When they see me, their eyes light up, they can see that look normal and healthy."

Breast cancer patients at Methodist Dallas benefit from a multidisciplinary approach. That means a team of doctors that includes oncologists, surgeons, and pathologists work together to destroy the cancer. Linda is there to be a liaison and connect the dots. She answers questions, makes appointments, and keeps lines of communication open.

"In the beginning, especially, it helps to have a nurse navigator to move on things that need to be done and understand what can and can't wait. Sometimes, they just need someone to talk to and get direction from."

My heart still beats really fast

Since 2016, Linda has worked exclusively with breast cancer patients. When a patient undergoes a biopsy at Methodist Dallas, a pathologist shares the results with her and she discusses them with the doctor. Sometimes, she's the first person to tell the patient about a breast cancer diagnosis.

"My heart still beats really fast, but I would rather it be me than it be someone else," she says. "I want the patient to have hope. I want to answer their questions, and I want to make sure they get the best care they can get."

Linda recalls her own anxiety early in her treatment and uses her instincts to get a feel for how much information a patient wants after learning about a cancer diagnosis. She's there to listen, offer details, and talk about next steps. If the patient plans to search for more information online, she shares credible websites.

"I understand how the 'waiting game' is one of the hardest parts of it all. Waiting for test results, appointments, and surgery can be excruciating."

We get to celebrate

"The great thing about my job is most of these women survive breast cancer. They get good pathology reports and we get to celebrate."

But when test results aren't great, Linda points to the positive aspects of the report. It could be that the tumor is small or doctors caught the cancer early. Linda says she can always find a reason to be hopeful.

She tells patients don't let the news steal your joy or keep you from doing things you enjoy, even if you can't do them as well as you used to. When she was diagnosed, she was training for a half-marathon. She says she continued to run as much as her health allowed.

Early detection saves lives

Linda continues to get regular mammograms and points to the power of early detection. In her case, her cancer developed quickly. She noticed the lump under her arm only a few weeks after a normal mammogram. All Methodist hospital campuses now offer 3-D mammography for the best latest imaging technology.

While she wouldn't wish for cancer, she says it ultimately guided her to her life's purpose: combining her expertise as a registered nurse with her experience as a survivor to help others beat cancer.

The National Comprehensive Cancer Network recommends yearly mammography beginning at age 40. Women with a family history of breast cancer may need to start screening sooner. If you have a family history of breast cancer, ask your doctor when you should start getting regular mammograms.

Methodist Dallas partners with Susan G. Komen Dallas County to provide free mammograms for uninsured or underinsured women. For more information: