Advocate Spotlight August 2021 | Dr. Crystal Champion
As a physical therapist, certified lymphedema therapist, principal of her own oncology rehabilitation practice – Eminence Physical Therapy, founder of the non-profit Champions Can! Foundation for Cancer Wellness Inc, and author of the book The Elements of Cancer Survivorship: A Guide to Navigating the Journey, it is fair to say Dr. Crystal Champion is well versed in all things cancer.
And all this was before she received her own diagnosis on December 31, 2019.
“I’m very fortunate that I caught it really, really, really early,” says Dr. Champion. “As a physical therapist specializing in cancer rehabilitation, I’m really adamant about staying on top of my health, plus there’s a history of breast cancer on my dad’s side of the family.”
Dr. Champion says she began getting mammograms at age 37 and while her first one came back normal, her next one, 18 months later, did not.
“It was stage 0,” she says. “I had a lumpectomy with breast reduction and four lymph nodes removed from the left side. Currently I’m on tamoxifen, which is a hormone blocker, and overall I’m doing very well.”
Through her work, she has been advocating for cancer survivors for more than five years when she began specializing in lymphedema treatment. So upon her own diagnosis, subsequent treatment, and recovery, she found herself following her own advice that she had spent years giving her patients.
“It was a very interesting, but valuable experience,” she says. “I have the experience of a cancer survivor, a cancer patient and a medical professional. So I get to see both sides of the table in the cancer journey, and having that perspective has been really helpful to me as a health care provider.”
“I can completely relate to my patients when they say they’re scared,” she says. “I’m transparent with my patients. When I tell them about my diagnosis I see an immediate change in body language. It’s almost an immediate trust when they know I’ve been through it.”
While her first-person experience has given her new perspectives and insights into survivorship, and increased her ability to relate to her patients, she also realized the book she wrote on cancer survivorship prior to her diagnosis did not provide those insights and it was something she wanted to address.
During her recovery, Dr. Champion came across an opportunity to apply as an NCCS Elevate Ambassador. She proposed her project be a more comprehensive second edition of her book and she was selected as a 2020 Elevate Ambassador.
“After going through a cancer diagnosis, I went back to my book and said oh man, there’s a lot of things I overlooked not having had that personal journey,” says Dr. Champion. “So my project is to go back and revamp my book and make it an even more comprehensive resource.”
Dr. Champion says there are several areas she thinks are important to add. She plans to address specific topics like lymphedema, body image after diagnosis particularly for young people, and a section on metastatic patients who she feels are often overlooked from the perspective of survivorship.
“Sometimes metastatic patients don’t think of themselves as survivors because they are actively living with cancer, so I feel like their needs are often overlooked,” she says. “So much focus is given to post-cancer treatment, but what about those living with it day to day that are incurable? That’s something I want to add to include that cancer population as well.”
Adding information on body image into the book’s second edition is an idea that was born out of her own personal journey.
“The change in your body image after diagnosis can be significant,” says Dr. Champion. “For younger people who aren’t married and don’t have a family and want to get back into the dating arena, there are a lot of insecurities.”
“What happens when you disclose to a potential partner that you had a cancer diagnosis and they ask if it will come back? All you can say is, I don’t know!” she says. “Things like that are really overlooked in the younger survivor population.”
And while she has long spoken about the importance and impact of the financial side of a cancer diagnosis, she has a greater understanding of the complexities of navigating the healthcare space as it relates to insurance, co-pays, and deductibles.
“Even though I had steady employment, there was still a financial strain,” Dr. Champion says. “I really got first-hand experience at how someone with cancer can go into financial peril just trying to live.”
As she works on her second edition, which she hopes to publish in the spring of 2022, one feeling she keeps coming back to is gratitude.
“I’m so grateful for the Elevate Ambassador program and the support NCCS gives to all of us and what we’re trying to do in the community,” says Dr. Champion. “It’s so important to have people in the local community to carry out the mission of cancer survivorship and help people regain their quality of life.”
Going forward with her work and her Champions Can! Foundation for Cancer Wellness Inc nonprofit foundation, her primary focus will continue to be on advocating for all patients to receive some form of cancer rehabilitation.
“Even if it’s just one cancer rehabilitation appointment it can make such a big difference,” she says. “Anyone going through this can benefit from cancer rehabilitation in their journey. It’s about quality of life. People are surviving cancer and living longer and want to get back to their normal lives.”