Frontdoors Magazine March/April 2021 Cover Story: Dr. Stacie Has Advice
Doctor, author and philanthropist talks wellness, philanthropy and living with vibrance.
Dr. Stacie Stephenson has some advice for you. Quite a bit, actually, as she has taken her decades of experience in lifestyle medicine and turned it into a program designed to help you “get energized, own your health and glow.”
And let’s get this straight; she does glow. Her shiny red hair cascades around her face, which is dewy and unlined. She sits bolt upright, her tiny frame animated by conversation. But more than how she looks, it’s how she interacts that is truly vibrant. With a hearty, full-throated laugh and a way of talking that draws you in, Dr. Stacie (as her patients call her) is like a vivacious, successful friend.
She grew up with all eyes on her, a competitive figure skater from the age of 6. “I grew up on the ice,” she said, describing a childhood spent moving through ever-more competitive training levels with the ultimate goal of making it to the Olympics. “That was the only goal I could think of,” she said.
Skating kept Stephenson on the road, which exposed her to new places and ideas. One thing she knew for sure: She would not be staying in her hometown of Champaign, Illinois. “I thought, what about the world?” she said. “This was just where I happened to be born. I knew I wouldn’t stay there.”
Yet, when the time came to pick a college, Stephenson stayed in Champaign to attend the University of Illinois, where she could maintain her training standards and go to school. Over the years, she had seen fellow winter athletes delay college to focus on their sport. “They rarely got back to their education,” Stephenson said. “Thankfully, I saw it. I don’t know how I did at 17 or 18.”
And then, after a skating career untouched by injuries, Stephenson suffered a string of setbacks during her sophomore year. Rheumatic fever, strep throat and mono — she got them all in the span of a year. Plus, she tore her Achilles tendon and sustained some other injuries.
Exhausted, depressed and sidetracked from skating, Stephenson reflected on her go-for-the-gold mentality. “Only one person wins that Olympic gold, and they’re not necessarily an American. You have to have a life after athletics,” she said.
From then on, she decided to focus on her education, because that would be her future. “Moving through university, I became enamored with medicine, I think, because of my injuries and my illnesses coming together,” she said.
However, despite being supported by a team of sports physicians and psychologists, she remained despondent. “I was thinking, ‘I’m 20 years old, exhausted and medicine has nothing to offer me,’” she said. “They healed me up a bit, but it didn’t help me feel better. The energy and vitality weren’t coming back.”
Stephenson began what has become a lifelong quest to understand the elements of good health. Early on, she attended a lecture on diet and nutrition by Jeffrey Bland, PhD, that opened her eyes. Bland is known as the founder of functional medicine — which focuses on discovering the root causes of sickness, rather than focusing on symptoms — and his presentation highlighted how science-based nutrition aligns with both the current medical literature and traditional Chinese medicine and other forms of traditional medicines. “It changed my world at a very young age,” Stephenson said.
With her training in allopathic medicine, she recognized that this was real science. “This field — lifestyle medicine, functional medicine, integrative dietary nutrition, whatever you like to call it — it’s not only real, it’s good medicine. And it’s vital. We miss it in our Western world,” Stephenson said.
Eager to learn all she could, Stephenson amassed training and credentials to have more tools to help patients. In addition to earning her functional medicine and anti-aging board certifications, she became a certified nutrition specialist, acupuncturist and doctor of chiropractic medicine. She championed a whole-person approach to health and emphasized lifestyle, natural medicine and personal empowerment.
Stephenson spent nearly 15 years running an independent medical practice in Indiana before becoming chair of functional medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America. Giving up daily interaction with patients was a difficult choice, but it allowed Stephenson to impact more lives by designing and developing programs that integrate holistic therapies over CTCA’s five hospitals.
The job change meant another massive transformation for Stephenson. She went on to marry the founder of CTCA, Richard J Stephenson, who created the network of cancer care and research centers following the death of his mother from cancer.
No longer a single doctor practicing solo, Stephenson stepped into a more public life with a partner in life, business and philanthropic work.
All three areas — personal, professional, philanthropy — converge in Gateway for Cancer Research, one of the family’s cancer-research philanthropies. Gateway is dedicated to funding breakthrough cancer research and early-stage clinical trials. “Let’s say you are suffering right now. You’ve gone through all of the normal standard of care, and there’s nothing else for you. That’s what we want to fund — research trials that are ready to get to the bedside,” Stephenson said.
Gateway seeks out the most promising research trials, wherever they come from. “We don’t care if it competes with Cancer Treatment Centers of America — we hope it competes. Because there’s no shortage of cases and it’s immoral to compete from a business standpoint, particularly in cancer,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson serves as vice-chair of Gateway and proudly points out that of every dollar the public gives to the nonprofit, 99 cents goes directly to clinical cancer trials at leading research institutions. To date, Gateway has provided more than $90 million in funding for more than 190 clinical trials worldwide.
But that’s not the only area where Stephenson gives. She works actively with the American Heart Association, and both she and Richard are committed to funding organizations in the areas of children’s health and wellness, poverty and education. They have a history of providing transformational support to organizations like Childhelp and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Though much of the Stephensons’ fundraising has centered on Chicago, it has shifted more to Arizona in recent years. “We started cultivating here in the Valley more and more as my husband and I were spending more time here, because I love it,” Stephenson said. “I really, really like it here.” She finds the local philanthropic community “dynamic” and appreciates the mix of people coming from all over the country. And rather than checking a box to be a good corporate citizen, people here are giving for more personal reasons. “I find the philanthropic community here exciting, welcoming and engaged — and that’s made me want to do more,” Stephenson said.
One way she has done more is to create her major philanthropic offering, “Vino con Stelle,” a high-end wine and culinary fundraising event for Gateway. “I never expected I would be an event producer, but I am. And I turned out loving it,” Stephenson said. “Probably my skating background. Everything is a production.”
To unwind, the Stephensons spend time at their Illinois estate. An avid equestrienne, Stacie loves spending time with their horses and taking romantic carriage rides around the property with Richard.
She’s come a long way from her college days, when she felt depressed and hopeless. So far, in fact, that she formed a new health and wellness venture, VibrantDoc, to share what she’s learned about wellness over the course of her life and career.
About two years ago, Stephenson started working on a book, “Vibrant,” which she calls
the culmination of 25 years work in healthcare. “I wanted to bottle up the consistent concepts that I found myself teaching in my practices over and over again,” she said. “I wrote it for everyone, and want it to be completely digestible, palatable, motivational. I consider it a health motivation manual more than a health and wellness book.”
As far as food and drink go, the book comes with 40 recipes, a meal plan and practical constructs readers can put to use right away.
“It is the essence of what you could implement into your health and wellness, without preaching, without creating a fad program — things that are truly foundational,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson likens wellness to a stool with three legs — diet, movement and relationships. Diet and exercise are critical, of course, but so are your connections with the world. Without the balance of those three legs, the stool is going to tip over.
Stephenson believes integrative medicine can help to keep that stool upright, and she is anxious to share advice for optimal wellness with anyone interested in taking charge of their health. “I really hope that this book meets everybody at their stage of health development,” she said. “I would hope that you don’t feel overwhelmed. And most of all, I hope you feel motivated.”