A Personal Diagnosis, a Professional Change of Perspective

For DesignGroup’s Char Hawkins, National Cancer Survivor month isn’t just inspiring, it’s personal. In this new essay, she tells her own cancer story and how it shaped her approach to healthcare experience design — and her perception of ideal care.


By: Char Hawkins, Senior Interior Designer, IIDA, LEED AP, NCIDQ


Tragedy and success and other major life events can have a way of transforming you. In a flash, you suddenly realize you now see things from a different perspective and feel differently about things than you once did.

One of those transformations happened to me four years ago, at age 43, when a doctor told me I had breast cancer. Hearing those three words, you have cancer, stopped me in my tracks. I remember feeling frozen in the moment, watching the doctor’s mouth move but not hearing her words as she explained what the mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy uncovered. As I sat on the couch in her consultation room, the doctor spoke softly and slowly, outlining what was known so far — yet her words barely registered. The multiple pages of the biopsy report were incomprehensible.

I could feel that I should snap out of it and listen intently, but all I wanted to do was run out of there, process this news, and have a good cry. I felt I would be ready to listen and absorb this in a day or two. So in the days after diagnosis, I absorbed the shock and readied myself for the next step — yet had no idea what that next step should be. It was like waking up from a fog and having so many questions but didn’t know what to ask or who to turn to. I became obsessed with Googling everything my doctor mentioned during consultation.

Unfortunately, most of my questions didn’t have a definitive answer. “How bad is it?” That depended on what they found in the upcoming MRI. “What are my next steps?” That depended on a whole host of variables. I honestly thought that, based on the biopsy, the doctors would be able to map out a strategy that would best position me to be free of breast cancer forever. That wasn’t the case. It was frustrating and confusing and terrifying to realize that they didn’t have all the answers. It was the worst feeling. The future was unclear until further scans and genetic testing. At one point the anxiety caused an emotional breakdown.

One morning the anxiety of the diagnosis and unanswered questions simply took over. After dropping off my children at school, I walked back to my car and tears just started flowing. I shut the car door, turned the radio volume up, and just let it out. I bawled and bawled. After several minutes, I looked into the mirror and tried to wipe my eyes and erase the evidence of crying, but just started crying all over again. I called my sister and said through sobs that I just can’t pull it together. I can’t go to work and act normal. Nothing is normal. I have cancer growing inside me, I’m doing nothing but waiting on scans and tests, and I feel like I’m coming apart at the seams.

She calmly told me to call my doctor. Their job was to treat me, as a person, not just my cancer. She was right.

A New Perspective

As a designer, I now have a deeper appreciation for what patients go through when they’re diagnosed and treated for cancer. Of course, everyone has a unique experience that varies a little, or a lot, from my own. But that experience broadened my thinking about how we should define “the ideal” in cancer care, and it changed my approach to design.

Before I was diagnosed, I assumed the most important factor in choosing where to be treated was the doctor's level of expertise and the practice’s capabilities. Having the best oncologists, researchers, surgeons, and equipment to treat cancer in the most advanced methods was at the top of my criteria. And yet, as important as that is, it doesn’t consider the emotional needs of the patients — what they need in the moment of diagnosis, or before and after treatments. I can certainly attest that emotional support is crucially needed.

When designing oncology spaces, clients often use the term comprehensive to define their services, an idea that has a very different meaning to me these days. Rather than thinking in terms of comprehensive treatments, to me it means providing services that support the human beings diagnosed with cancer. Programs and services that provide education, counseling, and wellness services are just as vital to a cancer patient — things that provide comfort, knowledge, and a sense of community.

DesignGroup understands that cancer patients are under great emotional as well as physical stress. This is one reason we incorporate Experience Mapping into our design process. It helps us more fully grasp the patient journey and allows us to work collaboratively with our clients to explore the conceptual framework for delivering ideal cancer care. It’s a unique approach to planning and designing healthcare spaces. We use it to consider a variety of patient types, categorizing them by cancer type, age, gender, and stage of treatment. These and other factors all impact their experience and emotional states.

Then we immerse ourselves in the end-to-end patient experience — what they see and do as they arrive on site, enter the facility, receive care, and then depart. At each key touch point in the patient's journey, we talk through what's happening on-stage (visible to the patient) and what’s behind the scenes to fully understand delivery of care. We talk about the environment at each key touch point, and emotional state of the patient in those moments, all to fully understand and map their journey. It allows us to plan and design cancer facilities that have a dramatic impact on the patient experience.

This is why Experience Mapping is so crucial in decision making. This mapping process gives our clients an awareness of the specific pain points and unmet needs of the patient so they can see the relevance of the interventions proposed by our planners and designers. This process has been instrumental in understanding when and why patients feel emotional stress. We can understand the triggers and suggest innovative improvements to the program or spaces to provide relief and comfort in those specific moments.

By immersing ourselves this way, we consider not only the programmatic requirements of the project, but also the emotional connections that will ensure a positive experience each and every time that the patient returns for treatment. These experiences foster community, reassurance, and even joy, in the midst of a trying encounter.

My own cancer story has given me empathy as well as a passion for designing to the patient’s emotional needs. I’m happy to report that there is no evidence of cancer in my body, and I feel better than ever! I’m grateful that my experience can be used to provide a deeper understanding of the emotional duress cancer causes. It drives me to discover innovative ways to provide a better patient experience in those crucial moments in a patient’s cancer journey.




Char Hawkins, IIDA, LEED AP, NCIDQ // Senior Interior Designer

Char has over 19 years of professional experience as an interior designer specializing in healthcare environments. She believes in a holistic approach to design, blending flow and function with a sense of balance, a feeling for lighting, and an awareness of the latest trends. Clients appreciate Char's approachable style, zest for life, and an enjoyment in shaping their environments.