“100% of the time it opened doors”: How LeadBoston paved the way in Dr. Helen Shih’s journey to providing better care for cancer patients with drug addiction

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In order to make change, “none of us should be completely in a silo.” Dr. Helen Shih’s passion grew from wanting to learn about the options available to people with drug addiction. She’s not an addiction doctor, or an emergency room doctor, though; she’s an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, who realized that she and her colleagues were not properly equipped to treat patients with substance use disorders. As she began to address this issue, Helen discovered that drug addiction was related to all other aspects of society – law enforcement, homelessness, and more – which were beyond her scope as a cancer doctor. She didn’t let that stop her. As she states, she realized she needed to “figure out how society worked.” So, she applied to join the LeadBoston Class of 2016.

LeadBoston, YW Boston’s leadership program, provides mid- to senior-level professionals with a unique opportunity to explore the complexity of Boston’s inequities through an inclusive leadership lens. Participants spend the year building skills that enable them to analyze root causes of diversity, equity, and inclusion challenges faced by their organizations and communities. The program culminates in the development and execution of a Leadership Commitment, a project that drives equitable change within a participant’s organization—and, in turn, their broader community.

In LeadBoston, Helen found the understanding and connections she was seeking. Each month, she and her fellow classmates gathered to discuss pressing issues and trends and to hear first-hand from civic leaders, community organizers, business people, and academics. She is now the founder of Shine360, an organization “committed to preventing and reducing active drug addiction in the community by advancing awareness, education, and research.” Learn about Helen’s story and how it illustrates the power of the LeadBoston experience.

Helen was always interested in medicine, but it wasn’t until 2015 that she began to think critically about addiction.

Helen was set on studying medicine from a young age. She first knew she was interested in oncology in high school when she watched a television program about clinical trials for patients with late-stage cancer. In medical school, she focused on radiation oncology and, upon graduating, began working most closely with non-curable cancers. Until 2015, she had never considered how addiction could impact one’s ability to receive cancer treatment.

That year, she began to see young adults in the clinic with treatable brain tumors, who also suffered from addiction. As she explained, “There are some rare subtypes [of brain tumors] that, if you treat it, the cure rates are really high.” In stark contrast to non-curable tumors, she could potentially give young patients 50 to 60 years of their lives back. But these patients were rarely seeking, or even accepting, medical care. Helen recalls one patient who particularly catalyzed her sense of urgency. “I had a young guy, and he was actively using multiple drugs […] By the time they found a brain tumor that almost killed him, they had to do emergency surgery.” Reflecting back, Helen said of those operating in the room that day, “I don’t think they realized he was actively using.” She described the pain the patient experienced going through withdrawal in post-op, pain that rendered him unable to make decisions regarding his care. He vehemently rejected the help of doctors and nurses. It dawned on Helen then: drug addiction was preventing cancer patients from getting lifesaving care.

In seeking expertise on the intersection between addiction and cancer treatment, Helen found that the prevailing belief among doctors was that they should help patients when patients were ready. But after seeing cases like her patient with addiction, Helen realized those with cancer couldn’t wait the average nine years it takes a heroin user to become sober. From then on, she says, “My whole passion is that we can help people get to the point of wanting the help, and I became interested in everything – prevention, education.”

How LeadBoston can transform your leadership: Four key lessons from Helen’s story

After seeking to understand addiction and recovery firsthand, including by becoming a regular attendee of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meetings, Helen realized she needed to learn more about the systems that were – or should be – supporting those with substance use disorders. Given her path from college to working 80 to 100 hours per week in medicine, Helen found herself “in a silo,” disconnected from the legal system, homelessness, and other issues that impact addiction. A friend of hers told her, “You know what? I think you should apply to LeadBoston.” Upon reading more about the program, Helen thought, “This is it.”

1. LeadBoston is a space to be curious and to discover where and how you can have the most impact.

From the get-go, Helen was driven by her determination to address drug addiction and the cracks within and between Boston’s systems that those with addiction fall through. However, not everyone who joins LeadBoston arrives with a clear equity-related passion. When asked what advice she would give those inspired by her tenacity, Helen explained, “There are so many issues out there where we all share agreement on. […] Each person has to decide which part of that huge pie you are going to invest in.”

LeadBoston provides participants with the context and understanding of Boston’s social systems that they need in order to determine what they are most interested in. In addition to learning, they process this new information together as a class and meet individually with LeadBoston staff so that they can pinpoint where they can make a difference. Helen noted that everyone in LeadBoston is a leader, and therefore everyone has the chance to “be socially responsible…There’s a real opportunity to give back,” she said, to “invest in our community, in our each other, in the future.”

Helen speaking at LeadBoston Orientation
2. Participants grow their knowledge and passion for change by learning about the interconnectedness of society’s systems and inequities.

Each LeadBoston program day is centered around a topic, such as education, immigration, healthcare, and criminal justice. Each month builds on previous months’ curriculums, underscoring how these systems are interconnected. “LeadBoston was so impactful every month,” Helen said. She found that, through the lens of her personal interest, “There wasn’t a single month that we didn’t address something that tied into drug addiction, because this is such a societal issue.”

Just as Helen saw how the criminal justice system impacted her ability to care for her patients, participants from other sectors, such as finance and real estate, have vocalized the ways in which LeadBoston has illuminated the connection between their businesses’ work and wider systems. This knowledge, along with the program’s capstone Leadership Commitment action plan, has allowed them to take proactive steps to increase inclusion and equity at their organizations.

3. The program introduces participants to topical experts and decisionmakers throughout the city.

What particularly impressed Helen was the expert speakers who joined the class each month, people who were really making an impact on and could speak to the issues that interested Helen, whom she likely would not have met outside of the program. Helen leveraged her learnings and connections from LeadBoston to follow up with city leaders – including former Boston Police Commissioner William Gross and Judge Serge Georges, Jr., of the Dorchester Division of the Boston Municipal Court – who helped deepen her understanding around systems that impact drug addiction.

“LeadBoston has given me connections into the city. There’s no way I could just call them up and say, ‘Hey, I’m just, like, interested.’ I’m not even in addiction medicine. I’m a cancer doctor. I used LeadBoston, and I said, ‘I am a student in LeadBoston, and you spoke to us. May I have a follow-up conversation?’ 100% of the time it worked. 100% of the time it opened doors, and I am so grateful to LeadBoston for this opportunity.”

4. You develop lifelong relationships with fellow leaders who inspire you to make a difference – and help you get there.

One of the most sustaining aspects of LeadBoston is the connections participants form with one another. The LeadBoston Class of 2016, Helen says, “came from amazing walks of life […] I was learning from them every time we met.” With LeadBoston’s collaborative and supportive environment, these relationships deepen throughout the year, leading to a widened sphere of influence. Helen, for example, got connected with the drug addiction program overseen by the Attorney General’s office through a classmate who worked there. Thanks to another classmate, she got to ride along with the Boston Police Department’s Drug Control Unit. She began to see the drug epidemic from these new points of view.

Helen’s story is a testament to the connections that LeadBoston provides. Participants graduate to join an alum network of 1000+ local leaders, formed over the past thirty years of the program. Just as Helen found that the program day speakers and her fellow classmates supported her on her journey, alum often share that they turn to the LeadBoston community when seeking professional advice and opportunities. Participating in LeadBoston means joining a community dedicated to one another and committed to creating a more equitable Boston.

LeadBoston will set you on your path to make change.

Each of these experiences deepened Helen’s commitment to improving treatment and outcomes for those with substance use disorders. Currently, she is furthering the public’s education about drug addiction and researching new ways to treat cancer patients who are either in recovery or actively addicted to substances. LeadBoston helped her to build out the knowledge and connections she needed to create Shine360, an organization dedicated to this work.

Many of us want to make a positive difference in our workplaces and broader communities but don’t know where to start. Tracing the trajectory of Helen’s journey, it’s tempting to label her experience as exceptional. However, her story actually represents the wealth of possibilities that come with participating in LeadBoston. It’s a leadership program that creates the space for people to turn their curiosity into knowledge, their knowledge into passion, their passion into action, and their action into impact, all while building supportive and sustaining relationships along the way.

Applications for the LeadBoston Class of 2022 are open. Apply now.


About LeadBoston 

Become a part of YW Boston’s LeadBoston program and join a network of over 1,000 inclusive leaders in Boston. During this 11-month program, participants explore and learn how to address barriers to inclusion through facilitated dialogue, expert speakers, and peer learning. Through experiential activities, participants delve into the social, political, and socioeconomic realities of Boston and explore innovative solutions to inequity. Interested in learning more? Reach out to Rachael McCoy, LeadBoston Manager, at rmccoy@ywboston.org with any questions about the program.