Before she became a physician, before her fellowship in Dallas and medical school in Fort Worth and undergrad in Austin, Dr. Chelsee Greer and her mom drove every few weeks from their home in Odessa to Cook Children’s Medical Center for chemotherapy.
The road, which spans more than 300 miles, crosses through Big Spring, Sweetwater and Abilene before blinking past Cisco, Eastland and Ranger. The road from Odessa to Fort Worth is long, but the road from cancer patient to oncologist is longer still.
More than two decades later, Greer’s road came full circle when Cook Children’s hired her to be the hospital’s newest pediatric oncologist last March. Her expertise as a patient helps her shepherd families through the many and sometimes unexpected layers of cancer care, from long-distance travel to reintegrating into life after treatment.
“I see so many people go through so much every day,” she said, “and I have relationships with patients because of this (journey).”
‘Something is really wrong’
As a seventh grader, athlete and honors student, Greer felt extraordinarily tired. In the mornings, she ran track and cross country. When the school day ended, she had soccer practice and, after that, homework. She stayed up late trying to manage her schedule.
To compensate, she skipped lunch and napped in the locker room. By the end of the school year, climbing stairs felt hard. Greer was 12 years old.
Her parents thought she was a normal middle schooler: Busy and sleep-deprived. “Teenagers don’t get enough sleep as it is,” she said. “And so we just kind of brushed it off.”
Still, they were cautious. Her physician tested her, multiple times, for mono; ordered chest X-rays and bloodwork. Besides a little anemia, she remembers, the tests came back clean.
When school let out, Greer and her family went to the beach. “My favorite place in the world,” she said.
But Greer slept. She never made it to the ocean.
“When we got back my mom was like, ‘OK, this is it. Something is really wrong.’” They took Greer to her pediatrician, who ordered a slate of CT scans: chest, abdomen, pelvis.
When the scans came back, he called Greer and her family into his office at 8 p.m. “Which is never good,” Greer said. She needed a biopsy, she remembers he told them, and she needed it now.
‘Childhood cancer changes the whole family’
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer that affects part of the body’s immune system. The cancer usually starts in the lymph nodes in a particular white cell that normally protects the body from germs.
Although the cancer can develop in anyone at any time, Hodgkin’s lymphoma typically affects people in their 20s and 30s. The cancer is rare, affecting roughly three in 100,000 people each year. Survival rates have improved over time. With modern treatments, roughly 90% of people live at least five years after their diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society.
When Greer was diagnosed in 2000, Odessa didn’t have many resources for pediatric cancer care, she said. That year, the city’s population was about 120,000. Her pediatrician recommended she seek a biopsy at Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth.
That initial journey, which left her with a diagnosis and chemotherapy port, would be the first of many over the next five months. Many nights, Greer and her mom stayed in Fort Worth’s Ronald McDonald House while Greer went through six rounds of chemotherapy.
“Childhood cancer changes the whole family, not just the patient,” she said. “My mom obviously couldn’t work. And then you add that extra layer of travel, where you’re away from your support system … it’s always hard.”
‘They were going to save my life’
Despite Greer’s illness, despite the many other children seeking treatment, the Cook Children’s clinic on Seventh Avenue felt like magic. The infusion room, Greer remembers, was bathed in ocean lighting. She felt as though she were under the sea.
One of her primary caregivers was Dr. Paul Bowman, then the medical director of the Hematology and Oncology Department at Cook Children’s. He remembers Greer as an inquisitive, upbeat child, who shared in the early weeks of her treatment that she wanted to be a pediatric oncologist when she grew up.
“She was always independent-minded and knew what she wanted to do,” Bowman said. “And she was going to give it her best shot.”
Greer’s mom was skeptical, Greer remembers. “She asked me why, because she was like, ‘This is so sad and terrible.’ And I told her that they were going to save my life,” she said. “So why would I not want to do that?”
In the ensuing months and years, Bowman saw Greer regularly, both in Fort Worth and West Texas, where he and his Cook Children’s colleagues traveled twice a month to provide follow-up care to patients. The hospital’s West Texas outreach team, which today includes Greer, helps families avoid the five-hour drive between cities as much as possible.
In college, Greer ultimately became a fixture in Cook Children’s specialty clinic in Midland, shadowing Bowman and helping as she could during her summers off from school.
Her cancer didn’t return, but the journey stayed bumpy. In an attempt to graduate early, Greer overloaded her schedule with pre-med courses and tried to take the MCAT, the medical school entrance exam, at the same time. Her GPA didn’t hold, and in her first round of applications to medical school, she didn’t get in.
“The obstacles she had to overcome to pursue her career path to its current state of fulfillment gives her a trajectory to basically do whatever her heart desires,” Bowman said.
Greer stayed the course — pursuing a master’s in Pennsylvania to sharpen her skillset, then reapplying to medical school. She enrolled in The University of North Texas Health Science Center’s Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, where Bowman had begun teaching, in 2012.
After her graduation in 2016, she pursued a pediatric residency at Dell Children’s in Austin and her hematology and oncology fellowship at UT Southwestern in Dallas. Her first day at Cook Children’s was March 20 this year.
‘Every experience is so different’
Greer rarely shares her cancer story with her patients, she said. “I never want to put my experience on someone else’s experience,” she said. “Because every experience is so different.”
Instead, she speaks forthrightly. She doesn’t sugarcoat, and she shares what families might not expect: That returning home, even in remission, brings its own difficulty.
“Your treatment is over and you go back to school and you don’t have any hair and you haven’t been there for six months and other 13-year-olds are worried about what color their nails are, and you clearly have been through a lot more. So,” she said, “It’s hard to interact.”
Bowman imagines that Greer’s dual perspective as a patient and a physician can take a toll, especially when hard memories arise, either of her own treatment or the struggles of the hospital friends she made along the way.
“There’s quite a bit of potential emotional upheaval that can occur, I think, especially when you know what the symptoms may be of a recurrence or severe complications,” he said.
As for Greer, she’s thankful to be where she is. “This has been the plan since I was 12,” she said. She’s still getting settled, finding her way around the hospital and developing relationships with patients. She learned from the best.
“I always felt like, if I can even touch one family in the way that (Dr. Bowman) inspires people, then my job is done.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.