Pathologist-turned-patient provides unique story in 'Red Sunshine'

Pathologist-turned-patient provides unique story in 'Red Sunshine'

Pathologist-turned-patient provides unique story in 'Red Sunshine'

Dr. Kimberly Allison, a breast pathologist at the University of Washington Medical Center, was 33 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. 

In contrast to how she dealt with cancer professionally, Allison said she was shocked, terrified and highly shaken. But after persevering through chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, the cancer is reportedly gone.

And Allison used that experience to help other breast-cancer patients through her new book, “Red Sunshine,” composed of her memoirs, advice and words of inspiration.

“I felt it was just too ironic that I found out I was going to be on the other side of the microscope — the side of the patient,” Allison said about her diagnosis in 2008. “My world turned over; I wasn’t expecting this diagnosis. I felt like this couldn’t possibly be true.”

Allison’s colleagues informed her of the diagnosis — something pathologists usually don’t do.

“The experience was totally emotional,” Allison said. “It rocks your world. I thought I was going to die. It was tough to be logical about things. I was completely floored.”

Allison did not have a family history of breast cancer, making the diagnosis all the more confounding for her, she said.

Allison had stage-three cancer, which necessitated chemotherapy for six months. She then had surgery, followed by radiation. Luckily, the cancer was responsive to the treatment, and her prognosis is good, she said: “It gave me a lot of peace of mind.”

Currently, Allison goes in for checkups once every six months, and she continues to serve as director of breast pathology at the UW Medical Center. She is now actively involved in breast-cancer research, clinical diagnostics and teaching. 

Sharing her story

Allison said she believes her cancer was pregnancy-related, which is why it progressed so aggressively and severely without notice. It was only when Allison was weaning her newborn girl that she noticed one of her breasts felt unusual. She was not concerned about it, she said, but she decided to get it checked out anyway.

“I didn’t think it was anything serious,” she said.

While going through the cancer treatment and recovery process, Allison began writing.

“Writing was a big outlet for me emotionally,” she said. “It helped me digest what was going on and see the silver lining.”

Allison initially wrote for herself, but she then proceeded to create a blog where she would update her family and friends regarding her recovery progress.

A year after treatment, she started talking with newly diagnosed women who wanted to know what cancer treatment was like.

“When I first started the whole process of hearing other women’s stories [when she was first diagnosed], it was so helpful for me, and I knew it might be helpful for someone else to hear my story,” she said.

She eventually wrote “Red Sunshine” about her experiences and self-published it, but it was quickly picked up by Hatherleigh Press.

The title of the book, “Red Sunshine,” comes from the nickname of her chemotherapy drug, “red devil.”

“I consciously made a mental decision to think of the chemotherapy drug not as a horrible toxin, but as red sunshine that was going to heal me,” she said. “It reflected how you could turn things into a positive light to make it better for yourself.”

Allison now speaks regularly for support groups across the country.

“I tell people that the beginning is the worst time. If you’ve just been diagnosed, it’s difficult to not know if you are going to be able to continue with your life as you had planned. It is terrifying, but it gets better,” she said.

“Whether you have a 99-percent chance of survival or a 5-percent chance, you are alive and you need to keep living,” she said.

Allison also advises women to get a second opinion and to become thoroughly educated about the choices they have. With breast cancer, there are a lot of options, unlike other more uncommon illnesses.

High risks but highly curable

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), breast cancer is the second-most-common cancer in women (after skin cancer) in the United States and is the second-leading cause of death in women (after lung cancer). 

Breast cancer affects one in eight women (just under 12 percent). It can be highly curable if detected early, according to ACS.

According to, an estimated 230,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in women in the United States in 2011, along with 57,650 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer.

In 2011, there were more than 2.6 million breast-cancer survivors in the country.

A woman’s risk of breast cancer approximately doubles if she has a first relative (mother, sister, daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. About 15 percent of women who get breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with the illness. The other 85 percent who develop breast cancer most likely do so due to genetic mutations that happen as a result of the aging process.

According to the National Cancer Institute, women who have recently given birth have a short-term increase in risk of breast cancer that declines after about 10 years. The reason for this is not known, but some researchers believe that it may be due to the high levels of hormones on microscopic cancers or to the rapid growth of breast cells during pregnancy.

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