It becomes personal for health advocate: Liz Dawson now adds her cancer experience into message

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

Liz Dawson has spent nearly two decades urging the people of north Mississippi to take better care of themselves.
As the director of Community Health for North Mississippi Medical Center, she’s advocated for good health and preventive medicine, including annual mammograms.
Now she has personal experience to back her breast cancer advocacy.
“Mine was caught really early because I’ve always faithfully done my mammograms,” said Dawson, who was diagnosed in May at the age of 52. “The only thing that caught it was the mammogram.”
Dawson has worked on the Komen North Mississippi Race for the Cure since it began 14 years ago. She became an official race committee member three years ago. The Oct. 29 race will be the first in which she can claim a pink shirt.
“It’s kind of surreal being on this side as a breast cancer survivor,” but Dawson is determined to share her experience as an example that breast cancer that’s detected early is highly treatable.
Journeys
Dawson, now 53, was diagnosed after her annual mammogram sent up red flags. Because radiologist Dr. Douglas Clark had years of images to compare, he was able to see a clear change on her 2011 mammogram, Dawson said.
“If I had not been diligent, if I had skipped a year, it gives me chills to think about what might have been,” Dawson said.
She had her surgery the Friday before Memorial Day and was back to work on Tuesday. Then, with her doctors’ blessings, she went on an eight-day mission trip to Bali, Indonesia, where she worked with children teaching them about teeth brushing and Bible stories.
“We had been working for over a year to raise the money,” Dawson said. “It was something I felt called to do. I didn’t want surgery to interrupt that if it could be helped.”
After she returned she started her treatment. Through it all, she kept working, kept teaching Sunday school, kept singing in the choir.
“It would get tiring,” Dawson said. “I tried to keep as much of a regular routine as I could.”
Because it was caught so early, Dawson had a broad range of options for treatment. Her early diagnosis and the type of breast cancer also meant she has only a 3 to 5 percent chance her cancer will reoccur.
“I’m the poster child for getting a mammogram,” she said.
Family history
Dawson lost her mom to breast cancer four years ago, and an aunt is a breast cancer survivor. Over the years, she’s watched friends and colleagues battle the disease, too.
“Before my mother, I never really thought about it much for me,” Dawson said.
Dawson had urged her mother to get regular mammograms, but she never convinced her. When the breast cancer was found, it had already spread to her mother’s sternum and lungs.
“She came from the generation that believed they were better off not knowing,” Dawson said. “She would probably still be here if she got a mammogram.”
Dawson said she surprised herself by meeting her breast cancer diagnosis with a let’s-get-down-to-business attitude.
“I thought if I got the phone call I would go to pieces, and I didn’t,” Dawson said. “A peace came over me that God would see me through.”
She leaned on her husband, Dave Dawson, her adult children, Lesley and David, her colleagues at Community Health and her church family at Parkway Baptist. Her sisters helped by hosting brother Jimmy, who has Down syndrome.
“I had wonderful support,” Dawson said.
Dawson didn’t have any illusions about breast cancer.
“I knew how bad it could be,” Dawson said, from the experience of her mom, as well as friends and colleagues.
But she had also watched things change for breast cancer survivors.
“The technology has advanced so much in the last 20 years due to the efforts of Komen and others,” she said.