Susan Gilchrist, M.D., loves to take on a challenge and to build things. Her latest passion is building a program that helps cancer patients return to, or even exceed, their levels of heart health prior to diagnosis. A new twist on her efforts is offering to play tennis with patients.
It’s a game Gilchrist knows very well.
The Huntsville, Alabama, native started playing tennis at age 9.
“My dad was taking tennis lessons and invited me to join him,” Gilchrist says. “I quickly fell in love with the sport and started playing every day when my coach said that’s what my idol, Billie Jean King, did.”
As a teen, she received scholarship offers from major universities around the country. She accepted the one from The University of Texas at Austin (UT).
Road to a national championship
During college, Gilchrist was a four-time All-American in singles and doubles and a three-time Southwest Conference Player of the Year. She led the team that won four straight conference titles and, in 1993, the national championship.
Gilchrist had set the bar even higher for herself. She wanted to be the best tennis player in the world.
But in her last collegiate tournament, she tore her rotator cuff. While she was able to play professional tennis briefly, the injury limited the next stage of her career.
“I got to play in the U.S. Open and the French Open and compete against some of the world’s greatest players, including Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver, but the injury wasn’t going to allow me to reach my goal, so I decided it was time to move on,” says Gilchrist, who retired from professional tennis in 1994 and was inducted into UT’s Women’s Hall of Honor for her tennis achievements in 2006.
Exchanging rackets for stethoscopes
Gilchrist wanted a career that would provide a life-long challenge. Medicine fit the bill.
“I decided to become a doctor because it was something difficult to achieve and it could make a big impact while helping others,” Gilchrist says.
While preparing for medical school, Gilchrist served as the assistant tennis coach at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and building the tennis program at St. Stephen’s Tennis Academy in Austin.
Gilchrist was accepted to the medical school at UT Health San Antonio, where she became interested in heart disease in women.
Following additional training in cardiology and epidemiology, Gilchrist joined the faculty at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Her initial focus was on non-medical interventions for cardiovascular risks, namely exercise. She partnered with the Cooper Institute, which was founded by Kenneth Cooper, M.D., the “Father of Aerobics,” who focused on the role of exercise in preserving health.
“This work brought me back to my roots,” Gilchrist says.
But it was a collaboration with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center that changed her career by connecting cardiology with cancer. That’s when she learned how cancer therapies impact the heart and affect those more at risk for these side effects.
Making heart health a priority for cancer patients
In 2015, Gilchrist joined MD Anderson’s Clinical Cancer Prevention department. One area of focus has been women with early-stage breast cancer.
“I feel it’s critical for these patients to have a better understanding about their cardiovascular risk, because the statistics show that they have a greater chance of dying from heart disease than from cancer,” Gilchrist says.
She explains that some cancer treatments damage or weaken the heart. In addition, some patients gain weight during cancer treatment, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
“I’ve found that women can lose as much as 30% of their fitness level during cancer treatment,” Gilchrist says. “That’s like aging 20 years in four months.”
In January 2016, she opened the Healthy Heart Program at MD Anderson. It’s open to patients with any type of cancer and offers an initial screening and assessment, including a fitness test. Patients then are given data comparing their fitness levels to others their age and a personalized exercise “prescription.”
“Hearing it from a doctor and having it called a ‘prescription’ – there’s just something about it that makes me take it more seriously,” says breast cancer survivor Ginny Levenback.
After hearing several patients say they desired to get back into tennis, Gilchrist approached Rice University about using their courts for patients. The university agreed, and Gilchrist now offers to play with patients.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes to empower people to make changes that protect them from heart disease,” Gilchrist says. “If playing tennis with a former professional motivates someone, I’m willing to do it.”
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.