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Personalizing Advancement: Deb Zimmermann’s Story


15 years ago, Deb Zimmermann was diagnosed with stage IIIA lung cancer. Together with Dr. Ramaswamy Govindan’s help, she took control of her diagnosis and her life.

“A cancer diagnosis changes everything,” Deb reflects. “When I was diagnosed all the new treatments that are available now weren’t available. 15 years ago, my treatment was the same as it would’ve been 40 years before. Dr. Govindan talked a lot about research – like genomic and biomarker testing – that was just beginning and that I could take part in. It was really exciting.”

Dr. Govindan carefully constructed a care plan for Deb that would best fit her needs as a patient and as a person.

“My treatment plan was chemotherapy first, followed by radiation, and ending with lobectomy surgery.  The whole process took about four months, followed by scans and praying to make the magic three years. Dr. Govindan explained that survivorship improves greatly at the three-year mark.”

Beyond the physical treatment and expert medical support, it was Dr. Govindan’s personal philosophy toward patient care that truly differentiated Deb Zimmermann’s journey with Siteman.

“I think the relationship, like all relationships,” Dr. Govindan says, “was built over time on trust, empathy, and a very sincere effort to reach out to the other person. That’s true in personal relationships and it’s true in professional relationships.”

“When doctors are honest with you, you trust what they’re saying,” Deb says. “You know your odds are not good. There’s a contrast there that’s necessary; if everybody’s just patting you on the back and saying, ‘we’ll get through this,’ then you don’t know what to trust. I trusted everything Dr. Govindan said because he was so honest with me at every turn.”

“Sometimes the outcomes aren’t good. Even still, there is a remarkable outpouring of affection and gratitude. People recognize a sincere effort to help. If you take true interest and work to make people comfortable, that sincerity comes through,” Dr. Govindan says.

“Think of it this way,” Dr. Govindan continues, “if I come to your house and you make me uncomfortable, what would I want to do? I wouldn’t want to be there. Patients come in already carrying a lot of anxiety. It’s important to understand them and make them comfortable – take a true interest in them. You want people to want to be with you.”

“Dr. Govindan and the whole team were really looking at me individually,” Deb says. “I wasn’t just a number.”

“You treat patients like you would treat your own family,” Dr. Govindan says. “I tell patients all the time, I say, ‘Look, this is what I would do if I were you. This is what I would do if you were my own.’”

“That was what was so great about Siteman,” Deb reflects, “it didn’t matter who it was, if it was the orderly in the hall or the guy that transported you to surgery, everybody made eye contact, everybody was friendly. And there’s so much research happening at Siteman. There’s so much going on. I think so many people don’t understand what we have here.”

“The point I want to emphasize is this: we are not just doing research in the lab, but also advancing treatments of patients with cancer,” Dr. Govindan says.

15 years removed from her diagnosis, Deb Zimmermann can reflect on her journey with a refreshed zest for life and a fervor to inspire support for Siteman and the cancer community at large.

“I was a non-smoker; I had no symptoms, and I was lucky. We got it at stage III instead of stage IV. Dr. Govindan said it would be a chronic disease that was treatable. I would like to see that option available for everyone,” Deb remarks.

“We welcomed our first grandbaby during my treatment. During those first three years, we had two more grandbabies and our son was married. I felt so blessed to be living my life. The cancer didn’t control my life. Instead, we focused on what brought joy and value to our family,” Deb says.Kochzimmparty0096 (1)

“Thankfully I’ve had 15 years,” Deb continues, “so a lot of this feels like a distant memory. Although, it only takes a single symptom for it all to come rushing back. I’ve accepted that as a long-term side effect. After several more years, Dr. Govindan and I had a conversation and he said, ‘You’re doing great. You know you can come to see me every year for as long as you want, but you don’t have to anymore.’”

“You’re treating somebody’s mother, somebody’s spouse,” Dr. Govindan reflects. “It’s simple, approach the medical condition as you would for your own family. It’s the way one ought to practice; I don’t know how else one should or can practice.”

“He told me, ‘I’m here as long as you need me,’” Deb recalls. “And he is. It’s continuing – his compassion – and my family and I are grateful for it.”

“At the end of the day, these are the questions that matter,” Dr. Govindan says, “How can we make our cancer patients live longer? Live better? How can we cure more cancers? Our investigators are spending their careers doing that research. It’s important to drive these ambitious studies to best advance cancer research and patient outcomes.”

Both Dr. Govindan and Deb Zimmermann agree, it is philanthropic support that enables Siteman’s physician-scientists to explore the potential resolutions to such crucial inquiries.

“I felt so blessed to have survived and I felt like it was my responsibility to give back,” Deb says. “You think, ‘how could I make the biggest impact?’ And, at Siteman, you know you’re going to make a difference if you’re giving money to researchers who can make a big difference.”

By supporting the Siteman Annual Fund, you will help advance the research and care that physician-scientists like Dr. Ramaswamy Govindan provide to patients like Deb Zimmermann every day. Make a gift to the Siteman Cancer Center today!