Written by Kaitlin Hill
Photos by Gracie Withers
Of Middleburg’s many enchanting qualities, perhaps its most unique is the talented residents the small town attracts. Though relatively new to the community, Dr. Lucy De La Cruz certainly fits the Middleburg model of being both interesting and impressive as the youngest Latina woman to lead a breast cancer surgery program at a major academic medical center in the United States. At just 39, she was named Chief of the Breast Surgery Program and Director of the Betty Lou Ourisman Breast Health Center at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital — no small feat. However, even more awe-inspiring than her new titles are the barriers she overcame to get to where she is, the humility with which she navigates life, her desire to serve others, and her innate ability to uplift and empower all who cross her path.
The daughter of HIV researchers, De La Cruz’s exposure to the medical field and underserved communities happened early. “I was born in Cuba, but I left when I was three years old to [go to] Africa with my parents.” She continues, “We moved to Mozambique in the 1980s and I lived there during a revolution — a civil war in Mozambique.” From Africa, the family would move to Spain seeking political asylum in 1991 and later join family in Miami.
After a semester at the University of Miami as a pre-med student, De La Cruz set her sights abroad where she continued her medical training at the Universidad Central Del Este School of Medicine in the Dominican Republic. “Essentially I was just going to do a semester, like a semester abroad, to see if I would like it and to do some missions there.” She continues, “I ended up staying and graduating from medical school when I was 21 because the system is a little different.” While there, she also established a chapter of the American Medical Student Association which helped raise money for those who couldn’t afford tuition.
Even at just 21, De La Cruz had a clear vision of what she wanted to do with her newly acquired medical degree. “I told everyone I wanted to be a surgeon,” she remembers, adding that she faced her share of skeptics. “Everyone kind of laughed at me. They said, ‘it’s a man’s field,’ first of all. And secondly, it’s very competitive. And while that might have deterred me a little bit in the beginning, it’s truly my passion. It’s my calling.”
Her determination helped her land two research fellowships, first at the University of Miami, and then at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., before starting her breast cancer fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. “I decided very early on that I wanted to be a breast surgeon,” De La Cruz says. “I fell in love with the field, and I always knew, [since] I was a medical student, I wanted to work with women.”
Her preference for breast cancer surgery was, in part, inspired by her desire to connect with her patients. “I can be a surgeon, treat women, and create a bond with them…I was blown away that I could do everything that I wanted in one field,” she explains. De La Cruz continues, “I wanted to be the doctor that bonds with their patient. I wanted to be able to have a relationship with them, so that I could be a guiding light through their journey.”
While pursuing her passion at the University of Pennsylvania, De La Cruz was still taking care of her young family in Washington and making the long commute daily. She remembers, “I would take the 4:20 a.m. train, so I would wake up at three in the morning. I would be to work at 6:30 a.m. and take the 5:45 p.m. train back to be home by 9:00 p.m. to tuck my son in.” She adds, “I did that for almost two and a half years, and seven months of that time, I was pregnant with my second.”
When an opportunity at Inova popped up, De La Cruz jumped on it, as it would bring her back to her family and allow her to build a breast surgery program. She says, “I wanted to build their breast surgery, breast fellowship program. I was their program director, and I created their curriculum, but I always wanted to be at an academic practice.”
After three years with Inova, she was recruited to join MedStar Georgetown where she was named Chief of the Breast Surgery Program and Director of the Betty Lou Ourisman
Breast Health Center in 2021.
But more than the impressive and well-earned title, De La Cruz sees this as an opportunity to reshape the way breast cancer is treated and offer her expertise to those that might typically go untreated. “Essentially, we do everything once you come in. We hold you by the hand, so you have nothing to worry about. We get you screenings, mammography, we order MRIs for you. We help with scheduling. We plug you into support groups. If you need genetic testing, we set you up with a geneticist,” De La Cruz explains.
Her holistic approach to breast cancer treatment includes eliminating obstacles to treatment for a broader patient population. “We are planning on doing outreach programs with underserved communities and uninsured patients to get genetic testing, to educate about genetic testing, tomography, as well as providing for the patients who don’t have access to transportation or have limited resources,” she says. She is also launching initiatives for high-risk patients, creating educational material for Spanish speaking patients, and starting a second opinion program to spread her top-of-the-line breast cancer treatment further into Virginia. She shares, “I am working on a second opinion program for breast cancer patients.” She continues, “If you live in Virginia and can’t make it into D.C., you send all your CDs and pathology reports and in a week, we give you our recommendation as if you had come to see us.”
She says, “If you have a cancer diagnosis, it is our job to help make it easier for you to navigate the process. And the faster we get [patients] into the system, the better quality of life they will have after cancer.”
For De La Cruz, her accomplishments and ambitions are the result of having family advocates that inspired her tenacity. She shares, “I never realized I was someone who was tenacious. I never stopped to think about it, I just pursued things I was passionate about. But I think it has to do with my dad being a really strong supporter of me and my career and of me being an independent woman. He empowered me throughout my life. He was a great role model.”
After the recent passing of her father, her kids continued to carry the torch of kindred inspiration. “My driving force became my children. When I became a mom…I realized I could not fail because if I failed, my son wouldn’t be able to look up to me. And that would be heartbreaking. Therefore, there was no excuse for me to give up. I have to push forward.”
Her kids also inspired the move to Middleburg, along with the area’s natural beauty and strong sense of community. “I remember we drove by the house that we bought. It was raining. It was foggy. It was an awful day, but it looked beautiful. I thought, if it looks like this on a rainy day, I can’t even imagine a sunny day.” She continues, “The kids love it. They spend every weekend here. They know the lady at the ice cream shop, they know the toy store, and Middleburg Common Grounds. It has become a part of their childhood. I want them to have this special place to grow up in…There are not that many places that are so wholesome where children can have a childhood.”
Part of that childhood is making memories, an ingredient of life Dr. De La Cruz believes is essential for happiness. “I am a collector of memories…and my number one thing is to be able to enjoy my time with my children and pass on some of the things I have learned in my life.” She adds, “I am trying to teach them to appreciate every day as a miracle and as a blessing.”
Being talented, tenacious, charitable, and family-focused not only makes Dr. De La Cruz an expert in her field, but they are also all the qualities that make her an asset to the Middleburg community and a very welcome new neighbor. She shares, “The community is amazing, and I am looking for how we can become involved within it.” As she settles into her new role, and active involvement in town, it’s safe to say there are certainly great things on the horizon for and from Dr. De La Cruz, and all well deserved. ML
This article first appeared in the May 2022 Issue.