When the doctor becomes the patient
When researchers and physicians enter the field of medicine, they make a commitment to improve human life. It’s been said that those who choose the field of cancer are inherently altruistic and sympathetic. Yet when faced with their own cancer diagnosis, their sympathy becomes empathy in its truest form. Here, five experts from MD Anderson offer their perspectives on living that transition.
OLIVER BOGLER, PH.D.
Professor and senior vice president, Academic Affairs
Diagnosis: Stage III Invasive Ductal Carcinoma of the Breast
Cancer induces a fundamental shift in your perspective, and how you feel about your life. In my experience, the hardest period of time was actually after Irene’s intensive treatment was finished because I was very keen for life to return back to normal. But unless you’ve been through it yourself, it’s very hard to understand what the other person in your life is going through and how it changes your outlook.
For that reason, I was in a sense relieved when I was diagnosed because it gave me a chance to understand the shift she went through years before. I understand it completely now. The perspective on your life — how you feel about your future, how you react, how you aportion your time, and how you prioritize what you do — all just shifts fundamentally. I wouldn’t say I feel fortunate to have had cancer, but it certainly helps me understand what Irene went through and has brought us to a similar place at this time, so we can share our lives better together.
“I’m here today. Today is a good day.”
IRENE NEWSHAM, PH.D.
Assistant professor, School of Health Professions
Diagnosis: Stage II Invasive Ductal Carcinoma of the Breast
I was diagnosed in 2007. I found a lump three days before I had my annual physical exam, where I underwent a mammogram — and five years before Oliver’s cancer diagnosis. For me as a survivor, it’s as though I’m walking on a thin sheet of ice. Any time that I have a pain or a cough, I feel like that ice is going to crack and my disease will recur.
It’s unfortunate that Oliver was also diagnosed with breast cancer, but I think that he understands my anxiety better and I have someone with that same perspective who can keep me level. At times, I find myself readjusting the way I see life. You can get lost in the details and stresses of everyday life — kids, house,work and flat tires — but you just have to stand back and say, “It’s OK, it’s a flat tire. It’s not a recurrence. Life is good.”
ALYSSA RIEBER, M.D.
Associate professor, General Oncology
Diagnosis: Hodgkin lymphoma
My first experience with cancer came during my first three months of medical school at age 21. I didn’t enter medical school thinking that I wanted to go into oncology.
Before my own diagnosis, I didn’t know any cancer patients, and no one in my family had cancer. So just being in that waiting room influenced me to take a career path that has turned out pretty well. I feel like I get to do the best job every day with my patients.
By going through this experience, I’m able to have a different relationship and conversation with my patients. I know that shock of having a diagnosis. I know that sometimes you cannot have a meaningful conversation right after you first hear the word cancer. Your mind kind of goes blank and you have that earthquake experience. And then once you process it, you can move on toward the practical diagnostic and treatment discussion.
NAOTO UENO, M.D., PH.D.
Professor, Breast Medical Oncology
There’s a significant anxiety and a lot complexity that come with a cancer diagnosis. Sometimes I strongly feel the emotions of my patients. So, for me, the difficult part as a physician is that I cannot show my illness or weakness in front of my patients, because I feel that may affect the confidence they have in me. At the same time, when my patients have a difficult time, I can relate.
Am I better person? I’m not quite sure. However, cancer has given me a different perspective, and I’ve had a lot more experience than someone who has not had cancer.
BURTON DICKEY, M.D.
Chair, Pulmonary Medicine
Diagnosis: Multiple Myeloma
This is a shared human experience. If it’s not cancer, it’s dealing with some other life-threatening illness. It’s dealing with mortality and that it could happen at any time, and that everything can change in a day. We all know that, but how do we deal with that emotionally and cognitively?
When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t hear much of anything else. It’s like one of those movies when something dramatic happens and they blur the periphery — and all you can see is this tunnel vision in the center. There’s this whittling away of everything else in your life, and forcibly prioritizing and questioning things. If I have to give things up, what would it be that I would really focus on? How would I want to spend my time? Now, having been through my cancer experience, it’s a little easier when I get very absorbed and things get hectic, for me to stand back and say, “OK, things should be prioritized a little bit differently.” I think that’s an important lesson for all of us.