A cancer diagnosis can change your life forever.
But when doctors receive a cancer diagnosis, it can also change the way they practice medicine. Just ask MD Anderson physicians Alyssa Rieber, M.D.; Naoto Ueno, M.D., Ph.D.; and Chitra Viswanathan, M.D.
Below, they share how their cancer diagnoses have changed their work here at MD Anderson.
Careful language and greater empathy
Viswanathan, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, now has more empathy for her patients.
“I don’t think I really fully understood what patients go through until I was under my own treatment,” she says. “It’s emotionally painful to lose your hair, but it’s also physically painful. It actually hurts when it’s falling out. I didn’t know that. I also didn’t realize how big of a problem nausea was and how necessary it is to manage those side effects.”
The radiologist is also more careful of the language she uses when writing her reports.
“I’m more cognizant now of how I phrase things because what I say in my report impacts patients’ treatment plans,” Viswanathan says. “A lot of times, we use words like ‘hemangioma’ (a harmless birthmark) or ‘focal nodular hyperplasia’ (a benign liver tumor) that happen to be incidental findings. So I try to be clear and concise, just to let the patients know those are not something to worry or be concerned about.”
A closer look at side effects
Ueno, who was diagnosed with sarcoma and other issues in 2007, says his experience as a cancer patient has changed the way he approaches side effects.
“I experienced a lot of nausea while I was undergoing treatment, but if you look at my chart, you’d never know it. There’s not a single reference to it,” he says. “I never told my own physician about the nausea because the loss of taste I was experiencing was more of a concern. Now, I ask my patients for the top three side effects — but by level of concern, rather than severity.”
A focus on how patients process information
Rieber, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 21 right after she started medical school, says having cancer taught her how anxiety can affect what people hear.
“After going through this experience myself, I was able to have a different conversation with my patients,” she says. “You just can’t have a meaningful discussion immediately after diagnosis because they’re still in shock. Everything after the word ‘cancer’ just falls away. I describe it as an ‘earthquake moment.’”
Now, Rieber gives her patients information in smaller, digestible doses so that they can really take in what she is saying. She also gets right to the point when patients who’ve completed treatment have concerns about symptoms.
“Any time you have a new symptom, the only question on your mind is, ‘Is this the cancer coming back?’” she says. “So when people call, I am quick to say, ‘No, I don’t think that’s cancer,’ or ‘Yes, you need to come in and check this out.’ I address the emotional aspect of their situation first, then the medical.”