Doctor, Cancer Survivor and Marathoner Goes the Distance for Her Patients: ‘Now I Can Just Give’


Dr. Dawn Mussallem of the Mayo Clinic tells CURE®’s “Cancer Horizons” podcast about how surviving stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and being a heart transplant recipient helps her connect with her patients.

There’s no stopping Dr. Dawn Mussallem.

Mussallem — a lifestyle medicine and integrative breast cancer specialist at the Robert and Monica Jacoby Center for Breast Health at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida — is a cancer survivor, a recipient of both bone marrow and heart transplants, a mother and a marathon runner.

Mussallem explained to CURE® how her own life experiences have helped her connect with patients on health journeys of their own.

“Going through what you go through, it really gives you the ability to connect with people,” she said. “It's such a gift, that ability to connect, and really kind of be able to have a good sense or intuition, if you may, of where they're at in their cancer journey, and just to be able to be there with them, and that time of vulnerability. And so, it's given me the ability to have a good pulse on exactly where I need to be with a patient.”

When she was 26 and in the early months of medical school, Mussallem began experiencing shortness of breath and fatigue. One doctor told her she had asthma, another concurred and a third said it was all in her head. A few days later, she collapsed on her way home from class — she was in cardiogenic shock, and her heart wasn’t pumping.

Doctors found a 16-centimeter mass in her chest wrapped around her heart that had collapsed her left lung. She was diagnosed with stage 4, large diffuse B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and was told she had three months to live if she didn’t start treatment immediately, she recounted.

Dr. Dawn Mussallem in a bright yellow shirt and pink hat, both with breast cancer ribbons on it, showing off her medal at the finish line of The DONNA Foundaton marathon | Photo credit: The DONNA Foundation

While in heart transplant, Dr. Dawn Mussallem volunteered at The DONNA Foundation Marathon. Then one day, the cancer and transplant survivor, ran it herself.

Photo credit: The DONNA Foundation

Surgery, chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant followed. And life continued for her. She began her career in medicine, gave birth to a daughter who’s now 19 and, three weeks later, began experiencing heart failure.

Mussallem spent 18 years in heart failure. During that time, she stayed as active as possible, worked with her patients and volunteered at the National Marathon to Finish Breast Cancer operated by the DONNA Foundation, an organization which financially assists and supports patients with breast cancer and funds breast cancer research.

“I remember working here in the Breast Center with my breast cancer patients and volunteering at the DONNA Marathon because I couldn't run — I couldn't walk it with the heart failure,” Mussallem said. “And I remember just thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I would give anything one day to be able to run this. If or when I get a transplant, I'll be good enough to do that.’”

The transplant happened in February of 2021, and exactly one year to the day later, Mussallem crossed the marathon’s finish line.

In this episode of the “Cancer Horizons” podcast, Mussallem talks with CURE® about her DONNA Marathon training experience her connection with her patients and the importance of physical activity for patients during their cancer journey.

“For 18 years, I wanted to do what I did … but I had to hold back because I knew I only had so much to give,” she said. “And now I can just give and give and give because I feel great. I gotta get rid of my energy.”

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