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Talking Cancer Blog: A Conversation with Holly Smithson, Athena CEO & Diversity Champion

Updated: Apr 20, 2022

March 5, 2022 | Written by MADHU GHOSH, PHD

Vice President, Strategic Alliances & Projects, NeoGenomics


Originally posted on NeoGenomics Blog


To call Holly Smithson an influential advocate for women in STEM, a passionate go-getter, and motivating force within the California biotech community would only scratch the surface of who she is. A fixture and a beacon of hope inside the California biotech community, a leader in diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives across the STEM economy, Holly is the CEO of Athena. For over 20+ years, this women’s advocacy organization works closely with STEM companies in the development of their female leaders and in the advocacy for gender equality. Athena’s mission is to advance 1 million women leading in STEM, by 2030 and partners with the biotech, high-tech, data, clinical and pharma community. Holly has tirelessly championed the cause for greater access and faster on-ramps for equitable career growth across a diverse group of leaders -including those on boards- to ensure we sustain California’s biotech community and its global competitiveness.

During the pandemic, Holly was diagnosed with breast cancer but even that didn’t slow her pace.


She actively advocated for herself, asked for support and continued to seek access to scientific data, trusted medical advice and superior patient care.

I’m proud to call Holly a great partner and ally and want to share our conversation with you as we also highlight the NeoGenomics connection, where patient care is our top priority.


Madhushree Ghosh: Tell us your life before diagnosis and your initial few months, post-diagnosis. I don’t think we talk much about the shock, disbelief and then the regrouping of families when a diagnosis of cancer hits a member. What was it for you and yours.

Holly Smithson: Life in a pandemic before my breast cancer diagnosis involved waves of isolation, restlessness and fatigue. When I received my doctor’s call on 7/12/21, I largely disassociated from the diagnosis and went into problem-solving mode. I singularly focused on advancing my surgery schedule given the latest surge of packed hospitals treating COVID patients. I then designated a core crew of friends to actively and emotionally support my cancer journey that would comprise my “Serendipity Team.” This would be the most critical step throughout my journey. I knew certain folks inside my circle weren’t emotionally equipped to travel this rocky road with me. Cancer makes us look at our mortality and deepens our relationship with death and prompts some people to run for the hills while others instinctively shower you with iron clad love and compassion. Formally installing this support team and regularly drawing from that well of love and sense of safety was my salvation.

MG: How was NeoGenomics part of your breast cancer journey? HS: NeoGenomics’ Biosciences President, Dr. Gina Wallar became my patient advocate, without hesitation. I simply cold called her after discovering the hospital had lost my breast tissue and claimed my cancer tissue was at NeoGenomics labs. The hospital had not called or returned my calls for over a month as I was waiting to confirm whether my onco-type score would rule out chemotherapy. They say this standard 2-week waiting period is a rather dark period. It certainly was a bleak 4 weeks in my life. After calling 3 different diagnostic vendors, I located where the hospital had sent my tissue and it wasn’t NeoGenomics. The indifference I was met with from that careless oncologist underscored the lack of humanity in a system that heavily markets “patient care” as a slogan on billboards but certainly not a value they practiced. Notwithstanding, Dr. Wallar became my only trusted resource on the choices I would need to make in the weeks chasing down the location of my breast tissue sample. She shared, reviewed and helped interpret various clinical trials, she always took my calls and texts at night. She lent a loving voice, an open heart and a constant shoulder that made me feel safe.

I now describe my patient care journey at the hands of that leading San Diego hospital as: “I survived the CA healthcare system …and cancer too.”

MG: Because you’re part of the San Diego diagnostics and healthcare scene, you were able to get support, but even then you said it was hard to get this going. Tell us what struggles you faced as a patient that you didn’t expect? HS: The first hospital conducted my surgery without any pre-surgery consultation on the different options to consider once the mastectomy was actually underway, but instead my surgeon decided on my behalf. I only discovered this fact when securing a second opinion at another well-known hospital. Their tumor board revealed that the first hospital’s surgeon left a 30% chance of remaining disease in my lymph nodes that weren’t removed during the mastectomy. I was devastated at the incompetence and in shock at how this could possibly happen. With Stage 1b ER/PR breast cancer, how could such ambiguity exist on the most common disease and early stage that made up 80% of all BC cases. I’ve never felt such powerlessness. When I requested both hospitals to provide further data to support opposing surgical approaches and to jointly collaborate on my patient care, they sent a couple of curt emails and that was all she wrote. I cried hard and deep before removing myself from the assembly line of those two hospitals and began devising plan B. I fortunately accessed connections at Cedar Sinai and Sharp Hospital for 3rd and 4th opinions and was finally provided patient care that treated me like a person versus a disease. Both groups demonstrated that communication and scientific evidence were fundamental parts of their patient care model. I wish to god I could’ve dodged the brutal experience at the hands of the other two hospitals but it was all part of my journey. What it taught me is how critical self-advocacy fighting cancer requires. It’s important to come at this disease with the notion that no one cares about your life more than you.

MG: Tell us about your journey of how you’ve been focused on clean eating and mindfulness. How does that help in your own cancer journey? HS: I eat a plant-based diet, I get acupuncture weekly, I walk 15 miles a week on the beach, I meditate daily and reduced my wine intake to 3 glasses weekly. I consciously minimize my stress at work and remove people in my life that aren’t value-add. It’s a wonderful path and it’s too bad it took a chronic disease to design this new formula. As more time goes by, I expect my thoughts of cancer recurrence to fade into the shadows of my mind. But I’ve also surrendered to what is and intent on living mindfully and gracefully accepting what comes beyond that.

MG: In your LinkedIn post, you noted, “There are more unknowns than knowns at this stage and that spells opportunity in my mind.” Did you deal with your process of patient care, and disease management similar to how you’ve led Athena San Diego? HS: Cancer gave me the gift of letting go. Shortly after learning my cancer would not be materially impacted by chemotherapy and I was spared that horrible process, I joined a week-long silent meditation with Deepak Chopra. Deepak opened up the series by saying why is everyone so afraid and preoccupied with dying….spend your time living. That landed deeply within me. The unknown is the universe. And the unknowns are where the opportunities both brew and proliferate. My cancer-related thoughts are no longer centered around what if it comes back but rather what if it doesn’t!

MG: Tell us about Blueprint for Success as part of Athena’s offers and why it’s important for all of us during the Great Pause? HS: Athena's Blueprint for Success podcast gives inspiration to those of us pining for reasons to keep fighting the good fight. We know we cannot be what we cannot see and this collection of women leading in STEM stories showcases the courage, moxie and grit that resides in us all. I call this Spotify podcast my B-12 shot equivalent. It gives us the surge of energy to remind ourselves what we’re made of and how possible it is to pursue our passions despite the head winds women face working inside these male dominated STEM industries.

MG: Tell us about the experimental trials and treatments that have helped you and what would you recommend patients do when they get a diagnosis such as yours?

HS: Following my mastectomy, I’m being treated with zolodex, a monthly ovarian function suppressor injection, for 12 months, aromatise inhibitor pill for 5 years, and herbal supplements. I’m not enrolled in any trials yet. However, Grail is expected to produce a cancer Dx test in the next 3 years to detect minimal residual disease or recurrence. I can’t wait to access that and avoid other more invasive diagnostic tests.

MG: How was your medical team’s attitude toward your diagnosis and subsequent treatment and what would you recommend they do better? HS: My surgeons and oncologists at my initial medical consults did not value communication. They operated more like a relay race than a team fighting to extend a patient’s longevity. The age-old maxim of treat ‘em and street ‘em was my personal experience and the doctors I interfaced with were devoid of any compassion. My only rationale for their gross misconduct was assuming they were fatigued from the pandemic and were just buying time to retire.

I finally found my dream team in my fourth hospital. However, my reconstruction surgeon from the first hospital didn’t sugar coat anything that had happened to me and was incredibly respectful of my plight as she took me across the finish line. Across the cancer patient community, they say if you're lucky enough to find at least one doctor that genuinely invests in you….do not let them out of your sight. I now know why …..that is such sage advice. Dr Ariya is my god-send.

MG: For Neo, as patient care and diagnostics is top priority in terms of our mission, we look for ways to improve ourselves and what we provide. As a patient, what could testing and trials companies such as ours, keep doing and/or do better? HS: Telling the stories of survivor experiences is critical. As more and more of the world succumbs to the grueling cancer statistics, the taboo of sharing the diagnosis is lifting and the brutal realities that follow is sobering. I have deep respect for NeoGenomics caring enough to shine a light on the champion providers as well as the systems’ chronic failures.

As a CEO, I’m keenly aware these hospitals are business units with P&L pressure. The push for elected surgeries, chemotherapy and radiology to meet those revenue targets ultimately creates constant friction in the delivery of science-based and compassionate patient care. Talking about the elephant in the room however is what genuine industry leadership looks like and is necessary to drive systemic change. Thank you, NEO for leading with compassion. It is profoundly missing in an arena that requires it most.


WRITTEN BY: Madhu brings a wealth of experience to successful team leadership in strategic alliance management, P/L business unit leadership and IVD and CDx product development for in excess of 20 years spent in molecular diagnostics and assay development with a focus on NGS, real-time PCR, multiplex PCR, oncology and infectious disease diagnostics. Prior positions include Senior Director, Strategic Accounts and Global Strategic Partnerships, whilst at Thermo Fisher Scientific, VP positions held at Althea Dx and senior leadership tenures with Qiagen and Enigma Diagnostics.

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