Breast cancer surgeon treats the patient’s disease and the fears it causes
BY DONNA CRARY
When looking around Dr. Denise Sanderson’s reception room, it doesn’t take long to see where her passion lies. The Think Pink sign, the iconic stiletto heels representing breast cancer walks, and a plaque celebrating her chairing those fundraisers all point to her desire to fight breast cancer.
Sanderson, a breast cancer surgery specialist, treats all diseases of the breast. Her mission, she says, is to put her patients first, giving them a sense of calm through very trying circumstances.
“When they come in, I expect that they’re scared — that they’re here for me to guide them, and that’s my role,” she says. “My role is to help them to feel like they can have some control back because cancer takes away your control. And I like to let them know that it’s OK, and that we have this, and they’re going to be all right.”
Born in San Antonio, Sanderson says she has wanted to be a doctor since she was a little girl.
“I had a doctor’s set, and I would play with my grandma,” she recalls fondly. “My grandma said that I gave the hardest shots ever. I thought, ‘If it doesn’t hurt, it wasn’t a shot.’ But I don’t feel like that anymore; a good shot doesn’t hurt.”
While growing up on the south end of San Antonio, Sanderson says her parents, Andrew and Beatrice Ortega, instilled in her an appreciation for the finer things in life like art and cooking classes. They also valued higher education and made it clear to their children that high school was not the end goal.
“My brother and I were expected to go to college, and they hoped we’d do something we loved,” she points out.
Sanderson was the first grandchild in her family to graduate from college. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Dallas, where she majored in chemistry and minored in printmaking. She earned a medical degree from Weill Medical College of Cornell University. She completed her residency at the University of New York and a fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, where she specialized in breast oncology.
She first selected pediatrics as her specialty while attending medical school, but changed direction after realizing that it wasn’t quite right for her.
“When I got to med school, I said, ‘I’m not going to do surgery; I’m not going to do psychiatry,’ and I ended up being a surgeon to the people who need the most TLC,” Sanderson says. “So, I’m a surgeon-psychiatrist.”
Palliative care oncology became the perfect fit for her.
“Being in the office all day was not the thing for me,” Sanderson explains. “It wasn’t fulfilling as much as doing procedures and things like that. But then I also found that doing procedures for general surgery wasn’t enough for me. I needed to build relationships. I wanted to really connect with my patients and do something that felt meaningful.”
In 2006, Sanderson moved to Martin County to open a practice and has been a sole practitioner for the last 11 years. She has hospital privileges at Cleveland Clinic Martin Health, St. Lucie Medical Center and Port St. Lucie Surgery Center.
With a background in art and an eye for perspective, the doctor enjoys applying artistic concepts to her surgical techniques. She uses oncoplastic breast conservation surgery and hidden scar surgery in her procedures to remove cancerous tissue which prevents excessive scarring and leaves a good cosmetic result.
“You really have to have a good artistic eye to know how much do you have to remove; how much tissue do you have to release to have a good outcome,” she says. “Part of it is that I sew a lot. Tailoring a skirt is similar to tailoring skin.”
A FINE BALANCE
According to Sanderson, honing her surgical skills is what makes her job demanding and rewarding, but more importantly, it makes her patients feel complete.
“The challenge is to do a good cancer surgery, but also with a good cosmetic result so that it’s not about vanity,” she explains. “It’s about a woman feeling whole when they’re done, and not have to look down and feel scared about their cancer. Those are important things when you’re treating someone for this disease. This affects not only their fear of life and death, but it affects their sexuality. It affects how they feel about themselves in their clothes, and how they feel about their relationship with their spouse or significant other.”
Her role as a psychiatrist is equally important as a breast cancer surgery specialist. Sanderson says that every person responds differently to a cancer diagnosis, so it’s vital to know how to access the patient.
“You have to read the room and treat every patient you have and care for them,” she says. “You can’t just diagnose and tell them what it is and say this is what we’re doing. No, part of being a doctor is not just diagnosing and treating — it’s caring for the patient and that’s caring for their psyche, too. It’s knowing how they are feeling and understanding that and responding to it appropriately.”
When Sanderson is not busy caring for patients, she enjoys spending time watching her sons play baseball and relaxes at home by sewing and making crafts. She also likes watching the latest shows on Netflix and tries to include hot yoga in her schedule.
Mostly, she says, she’s “simple, a jeans and T-shirt” kind of woman. And she enjoys being a physician where she strives to be honest, caring, compassionate and thorough.
“Women who have breast cancer are a special group of patients,” she says. “They are passionate about their disease and they want to help each other. They care about getting better. It’s just a great group of people and I like taking care of them.”
DR. DENISE SANDERSON
Occupation: Breast cancer surgery specialist
Lives in: Palm City
Family: Husband, Steven; sons, Ryan and Quin
Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Dallas; medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University; residency at the University of New York and fellowship at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in breast oncology
Hobbies: “I craft a lot. I also sew, making pillows, dog beds, surgical masks and hats — things that don’t require a lot of mental attention that I just do for fun.”
Who inspires you: “My kids. They’re funny, they’re smart, and they have good hearts.”
What most people don’t know about me: “When I was little, I used to run around as a superhero named Dynamo. My mom made me a little purple leotard with a D and I was Dynamo!”