How Dr. Dawn Mussallem Inspires Patients…


Sep 12, 2023

Dr. Dawn Mussallem, a certified lifestyle medicine physician, says her dedication to a healthy lifestyle empowered her during her cancer treatment and helped her maintain vitality.

She provides her patients at the Mayo Clinic Breast Center in Jacksonville, Florida, with evidence of why healthy lifestyle choices are essential for breast cancer prevention and treatment.

Dr. Mussallem, a specialist in breast cancer and lifestyle medicine, comes to meetings prepared with evidence about why healthy lifestyle choices are important for breast cancer prevention and treatment.

Her patients experience a range of emotions following a breast cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. Fear. Confusion. Determination.




“But patients embrace the opportunity to take control of their illness and embrace the six pillars of lifestyle medicine – nutrition, physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substances, and positive social connections,” said Dr. Mussallem.

These terms are patient-focused. However, if Dr. Mussallem feels that additional inspiration could be beneficial, she shares her own story, one that surprises patients about the healthy and energetic doctor sitting across from them.

It’s a story in which Dr. Mussallem survived stage 4 cancer and underwent a successful heart transplant. For her survival success, Dr. Mussallem credits the doctors, top-notch cancer care, and transplant care as well as her strong commitment to a healthy lifestyle.

At that moment, Mussallem decided she wanted to live to 100. years.

After three months of studying medicine at Midwestern University in Arizona, Mussallem began feeling unwell and fatigued. As she climbed the small stairs to her apartment, she collapsed. She was diagnosed with stage IV aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma and was told she had only three months to live. She was 26 years old.

Mussallem underwent aggressive chemotherapy and radiation, as well as a bone marrow transplant. Through it all, she continued regular physical activity, hiking in the Arizona mountains, eating a whole-food-based diet heavily focused on plant-based foods, and attending classes.

Medical school remained her focus and helped her maintain a positive mindset.

The bone marrow transplant required a four-month hospitalization. Her team of doctors, who couldn’t keep her bedridden, provided her with a stationary bike. She rode the bike at 4 in the morning every day before the other patients woke up.

“I’m not sure I would have survived if I hadn’t continued my healthy lifestyle even when I was sick and undergoing treatment. It empowered me and gave me hope knowing I could remain active throughout my cancer journey,” she said.

Unfortunately, the new therapies that saved Dr. Mussallem’s life took a toll on her heart. She completed medical school, got married, and gave birth to a beautiful daughter. But her heart was failing. In 2003 doctors diagnosed her with advanced heart failure.

It limited her physical activity, but it didn’t deter Dr. Mussallem from working at the Mayo Clinic and maintaining a healthy diet. She was eventually placed on the waiting list for a new heart.

While giving a presentation to her colleagues at the Mayo Clinic, she experienced ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest. For several minutes, her internal defibrillator failed multiple times before finally reviving her. She was now a candidate for a heart transplant.

In early 2021, her health rapidly deteriorated, and she was hospitalized and put on IV therapy to stabilize her. And then the miraculous call came—a suitable heart became available.

As a tearful Dr. Mussallem put it, “It’s so… full of hope. But it’s hard to be excited when someone else has died to give you life.”

After the transplant, she took her first tentative steps with a walker, and two weeks later, she left the hospital without assistance. Three and a half months after the transplant, she ran her first 5 kilometers in 20 years.

Then, a year and one day after the heart transplant, Dr. Dawn ran a full marathon, the Donna Marathon, on a cold, rainy, and windy day in Jacksonville. As everyone can attest, she set a record as the first person to complete a marathon just one year after a heart transplant.

At the finish line, several colleagues joined her. After receiving her medal, the staff at the Jacoby Breast Health Center at the Mayo Clinic cheered loudly to show their support.
(Source: Mayo Clinic website)

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