Man in pink: How my male breast cancer helped me appreciate MD Anderson
Oliver Bogler, Ph.D
Oliver Bogler, Ph.D., is senior vice president of Academic Affairs and professor of neurosurgery research at MD Anderson. He was diagnosed with male breast cancer in Sept. 2012. Five years earlier, his wife, Irene Newsham, Ph.D., was diagnosed with breast cancer. This is the second post in an ongoing series.
I'm about halfway through chemotherapy for my male breast cancer. These past few weeks have opened up an entirely new view for me on MD Anderson.
As I mentioned in my last post, my wife and I relocated to Houston to work at MD Anderson about eight years ago. And, although I got a view when Irene was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2007, it's not until I became a patient here that I really got to see how amazing this place is.
Wearing both an employee badge and a patient bracelet gives me a dual perspective. Moving through familiar areas of the institution on my way to a medical appointment, it's easy to forget that I'm not going to a meeting or seminar, but am instead about to change roles entirely by becoming a patient.
And then, of course, being a researcher and administrator, I now see many clinical areas that are new to me as a male breast cancer patient. But the doctors I meet there are, in many instances, familiar colleagues. It's an odd mixture of feeling both at home and a stranger, all at the same time.
Discovering a new appreciation for multi-disciplinary care
On my journey, I've discovered several things.
One is how truly large the clinical team that delivers care is. I wish to thank here those colleagues and co-workers who've been part of this large team that is providing my care, and the many more who will, as I move to surgery and radiation therapy.
We talk about how central multi-disciplinary care is to the ways we treat cancer at MD Anderson, but now that I am experiencing it as a male breast cancer patient, I have a new appreciation for it. Just on a routine chemo day I encounter at least a half-dozen people who book me, take blood, take my vitals and administer and check the chemo.
Then there are the many physicians whose experience and input shape my male breast cancer care plan. I like looking through the numerous clinical reports on myMDAnderson and reading the names of the doctors who have been involved in my care.
Then there are many doctors who I will not meet in the course of my care, as they work behind the scenes, reading imaging, assessing test results and considering the slides of lymph node biopsies or tumor sections. Gregg Staerkel, M.D., has read several of my cytology preps and Fraser Symmans, M.D., has assessed the tumor biopsies, to name just two of the many doctors I see on my reports.
Of course, even those colleagues not involved in my care are familiar with cancer through their work and know the challenges it poses, and I feel I benefit from this, too.
Experiencing extraordinary support from MD Anderson staff
I've always felt the strong sense of mission wherever I go at MD Anderson, whether it's in the clinics, the labs or the offices of the many support staff.
I can't help but feel that this sense of mission also translates into the support I have felt from so many of them, which has been truly extraordinary. It reaches me in email messages and cards, and in the many brief encounters during a working day, when people ask me how I am doing, with a look or tone that tells me they are not just saying hello. There have also been some wonderfully thoughtful gestures of support from friends, all of them truly appreciated and often coming when they're most needed.
Finding solidarity among my colleagues
But one of the most interesting things about the last few weeks has been learning that it's not that unusual to be wearing both a bracelet and a badge. There are quite a few of us. Of course, when you consider that there are over 19,000 people who work at MD Anderson, statistics suggest that there must be several hundred of us who are also patients and survivors, and many thousands who are family and friends of patients and survivors.
What has been interesting is that many of my colleagues have declared solidarity by simply letting me know that they too are fighting cancer personally. Sometimes in a hallway or an elevator or at a seminar in the few minutes before the talk begins, someone has shared his or her own journey with me, and it has been very comforting to know that we have this in common.
I trade emails with a small number of friends who are also in the early stage of their treatment of their recently diagnosed or recurred cancer. As I travel my own road, it is good to have guides along the way and companions alongside. It's good to be understood and not to be alone.