Health Team

Cancer survivor turned UNC med student: 'I know what pain is like'

Posted August 15, 2012 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated August 16, 2012 11:34 a.m. EDT

Katy Sims

— Wednesday is Katy Sims' first day of medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As she prepares to buy her first stethoscope, she reflects on its symbolism.

"It means now I'm going to be able to make the same kind of impact on people that my doctors made on me," she says. 

In 2007, in her freshman year at Davidson College, Sims was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma. She said she didn't know that sarcoma meant cancer until her doctors started talking about chemotherapy.

"I was like, 'Wait, wait, wait. Chemo is for people who have cancer.' They just kind of looked at each other and they looked at me, and I just started crying," Sims recalls.

First, she had surgery to remove a mass on her ribs near her lungs. Then she underwent several cycles of chemotherapy.

During her recovery, Sims says a nurse made her re-think her plans to become a linguist.

"I asked her, 'What do you think I should do?' And she said, 'I think you should become a doctor,'" Sims says.

She decided her experience could help her empathize with cancer patients.

"I know what pain is like. I had three ribs removed," she says. "(When) they say they're in pain, I know that pain."

Sims has already inspired her friend Meghan Brennan, who survived Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a type of cancer affecting the lymph nodes. 

The friends met at a surfing camp for young adults with cancer called First Descents. Brennan was about to give up on surfing when she saw Sims riding a wave.

"I said, 'Wait a minute. She doesn't have ribs, and that guy needs to wear a helmet because he had his head cut open three times,'" Brennan recalls. "I'm like, 'I need to try harder.'"

Both women discovered their experience with cancer can create new friendships and new opportunities to help others. 

Sims plans to focus on cancer medicine and perhaps serve patients in rural areas.