Care, Compassion Combat Cancer

Oct 25, 2012

Care, Compassion Combat Cancer

As a young girl, pink is the color of Barbie’s dream house, bubble gum and cotton candy. For Bridget Spence, it was also the color of the ballet tutus and jelly slippers that lined her dress-up bin. But in 2005, the color rapidly transformed from one of sweet, childhood associations to one of survival, compassion and hope when Spence was forced to meet the battle with breast cancer head-on at the age of 21.

Spence, now 28, is a metastatic (stage IV) breast cancer survivor and Susan G. Komen advocate. She was diagnosed two weeks after graduating cum laude from Boston University with a degree in international relations, and six months after discovering what she suspected to be a lump in her breast. Further tests revealed she had a tumor in her liver as well. “I had just graduated from college,” said Spence. “I wanted to go to Europe. I wanted to have babies. I wanted to get married and to have hair for my wedding day. I was a young girl with concerns that were really important to me. If I was going to be fighting for the rest of my life, then I needed to be able to have a life as well.”

For Spence, the compassionate care she has received has been nearly as important as the life-saving, medical treatment itself. She made it clear early on that she wanted to be treated as a whole person, not just as a patient, and found the right fit with Dr. Ann Partridge, a cancer specialist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“From the beginning, Dr. Partridge has always been just wonderful and competent,” said Spence. “I always feel much better once I’ve had the chance to talk to her. If your provider knows you as an individual, and doesn’t ask the rote questions, it takes the edge off just a little bit.”

Partridge has guided Spence through countless rounds of chemotherapy and clinical trials, scheduling every treatment so as not to conflict with the major events in her life, such as her wedding day in 2009.

“While I was planning the flowers and the food, Dr. Partridge was planning my illness,” said Spence. “And she handled it. It was so nice to have my entire treatment regimen planned around this very important day.”

“What I’ve tried to do in caring for Bridget is to help her live her life as well as possible, always trying to control the disease and minimizing the side effects of therapy,” said Partridge.

“I would define compassionate care as trying to really get to know the person and understanding what’s important to them. It’s trying to meet the patients where they are.”

In Spence’s eyes, Partridge has done so much more, fueling her with the hope to carry on, even as the cancer has spread to her lungs and bones.

“Dr. Partridge treats me as a partner in my care,” said Spence. “She includes me. She includes my husband and my parents in every treatment decision. She has never used the word incurable, and she has never thrown out statistics. She simply fights alongside me.”

Partridge has been supported in her work by attending the Schwartz Center Rounds®, the signature program of the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare. The program allows caregivers from multiple disciplines to come together on a regular basis to discuss the most challenging  emotional and social issues they face in caring for patients. It has led to increased insight, improved teamwork and more patient-centered healthcare practices and policies. It is now taking place at  more than 250 healthcare facilities in 36 states.

“Schwartz Center Rounds have actually opened my eyes to the fact that patient care can be wonderful and rewarding,” said Partridge.

The Center is named for the late Ken Schwartz, a Boston healthcare attorney who was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer at age 40. In an article for the Boston Globe Magazine entitled “A Patient’s Story,” he reminded caregivers to stay in the moment with patients and how “the smallest acts of kindness make the unbearable bearable.” He founded the Schwartz Center in 1995, just days before his death, to ensure that all patients receive compassionate and humane care.

“The work of the Schwartz Center is so incredibly important, especially in this day and age,” said Spence. “As treatment gets more advanced, it becomes more individualized. My journey is so different from the journey of any other patient who could have the exact same diagnosis. It’s so important that you’re not just a number.”

The 17th Annual Kenneth B. Schwartz Compassionate Healthcare Dinner to recognize the essential role of communication, empathy and emotional support in healthcare will be held Thursday, Nov. 8 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. MassBio’s CEO Robert Coughlin is a dinner co-chair. For more information, contact Elizabeth Hickman at

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