As Brown County celebrates national Breast Cancer Awareness Month with fundraisers, pink-outs and pep rallies, the men and women of the Brownwood Regional Medical Center work every day on the front lines of the disease.
Doris Wooten and Beth Pittman are nurses at the Walker Cancer Center, a specialized unit of the BRMC that focuses on a holistic approach to cancer treatment. They’ve spent years helping local cancer patients through every stage of their journey, celebrating each victory and mourning each loss along the way. But the nurses bring more than compassion and expertise to the Cancer Center — they bring the kind of empathy that can only come from other cancer survivors, which Wooten and Pittman both are.
Wooten was raised in Haskell, Texas and began her career as a schoolteacher before going back to school and moving into nursing. She has now been a nurse for 27 years, but she didn’t start at the Cancer Center.
Wooten was diagnosed with breast cancer 14 years ago, and said her experience battling the disease led her to Walker. “I’ve done just about everything on the floor,” she said of her early nursing career. “After I was diagnosed, I had all my treatment here. … They did such a good job that I started working down here on my days off.” She was eventually able to transfer to the Cancer Center full-time and has been working there for about a decade.
Pittman, who emigrated to America from the Philippines in 1983, is a survivor of stomach cancer. Her experience also made her want to work with other cancer patients, and under her own doctor. “Since I was diagnosed with cancer, I feel like I needed to learn more about cancer and to share my experience,” Pittman said.
Wooten said it’s valuable for cancer patients to work with health care professionals who have real-world, firsthand knowledge of the disease. “When I was going through cancer, it was so good to see someone who went through all of that and had a good outcome,” Wooten said. “I thought I could do that for somebody else. That really reassures my patients, to have a nurse that knows what they’re going through.”
At the Cancer Center, Wooten and Pittman often interact with the same patients for months and years as they go through the trials of treatment. They say it’s impossible not to become invested — even if they must put on a brave face for all their patients. “It’s challenging, because you get close to these patients,” Pittman said. “You can’t save everybody. It’s tough, but it won’t help the patients if you break down and cry.”
The women recommend a monthly self-examination and a yearly mammogram for all women to detect and prevent breast cancer. It was through a self-examination that Wooten discovered her own tumor — and she encouraged other women not to ignore warning signs or symptoms. “They can talk to their doctor about that, and they’ll explain how to do that [self-exam],” Wooten said. “I found mine in June, and I had just had my breasts checked in January. That’s how quickly something can be found. First I said, ‘It’s nothing, I’m not going to go in.’ And then I said, ‘No, you idiot, you are going to.’”
She said the experience has informed every aspect of her work today. “I have an understanding — not just a professional understanding, but a gut understanding — of what the patients are going through,” Wooten said. “Going through that really helped me to have more empathy.”
The Walker Cancer Center was founded in 1994 in memory of Dr. James B. N. Walker, who served Brownwood from the 1930s through the ‘60s and died of cancer in 1989.