Photograph by Jamie Betts

At 21 years old, Kandace Peterson McGuire, ’98, had her first breast cancer patient. McGuire was a senior at Richmond studying biology and preparing for medical school when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. As the only person in her family with medical knowledge, McGuire took on the task of translating complex terminology into plain language for her parents.

The experience marked a turning point for McGuire. Medical school had been the plan since childhood. She pictured a future as a primary care physician with an interest in women’s health. But watching her mom participate in a clinical trial for drugs that likely saved her life helped McGuire see that the field of medicine had more possibilities. A rotation under a doctor with an “infectious love of surgery” and conducting research with a breast surgeon — an option McGuire didn’t realize existed — further shaped her direction.

Today McGuire specializes in breast cancer surgery and research with a focus on breast cancer in patients under 35. In these cases, she says, the disease is not only particularly aggressive, but also has wider ripple effects because patients are often raising families, caring for aging parents, and growing their careers. That means McGuire isn’t just looking at complicated science, but considering the social implications as well.

“Breast cancer hits them harder,” she says. “They have busy lives, and all of a sudden, they have this cancer diagnosis that wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s a sad double hit.”

Those days spent in hospitals with her mom shaped one more aspect of McGuire’s medical practice: her approach to patients.

“It made me a much better doctor,” she says. “I make a special effort to make sure that I am talking at a level that my patients can understand because not everyone’s going to have their college kid with them to tell them what the doctor meant.”

I've been absorbing like a sponge for the last 20 years. Now it's time to wring that sponge out.

That thinking is permeating McGuire’s approach in her new role of chief of breast surgery at Virginia Commonwealth University and Massey Cancer Center. She’s combining her expertise in research, surgery, and clinical care with teaching the next generation of breast surgeons.

Just weeks after her arrival at VCU, McGuire started looking for ways to begin creating a comprehensive care clinic where a newly diagnosed patient can come to one office on one day and meet with every provider involved in his or her care.

“If they’re coming downtown and trying to park, they only have to do that once before they know what their plan is going to be for the course of their care,” she says. “If they’re wondering what chemo is going to be like or what radiation is all about, how they’re going to pay for everything, they can get all of those questions answered on one day rather than bouncing from clinic to clinic.”

Leading the department also gives McGuire a chance to shape a program from top to bottom.

“I’ve been absorbing like a sponge for the last 20 years,” she says. “Now it’s time to wring that sponge out.”