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When the Patient is an Oncologist

Posted 5/21/2015

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  For obvious reasons, this wonderful interview with Dr. Laura Lieberman, a physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering who was diagnosed with Stage IV lymphoma caught my eye. Being an oncology social worker, married to an oncologist, and having two breast cancers has been quite a challenging experience. While it has been very helpful to know a lot, there have been many times when knowing less would have been better. My poor husband had to try to regain a poker face on more than one occasion when I had glimpsed his distress. 

  I remember the morning in February 1993 when I felt a lump in my breast and asked him to feel it. He could not hide his expression in the moment, and his eyes gave me the answer while he suggested that I want through a cycle and see if it went away on his own. I called a surgeon when I got to work that morning.

  This is well worth a read and confirms what we all know: that being a patient is much harder than being a medical caregiver and that no one really can understand what it is like until s/he has been there. My husband tells a story about a distinguished professor in his medical school who told his students: "I wish you all a very serious illness from which you fully recover." Only then can a doctor get it.

  Here is the start and a link to read more:

The Indignity of Cancer Treatment

Laura Liberman, MD, was working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center as a radiologist when she
was diagnosed with lymphoma. Liberman, who wrote a book about her experience, recently shared some of her insights with Lidia Schapira, MD, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Read the full interview on Medscape, WebMD’s site for health care professionals. The interview was done in
collaboration with CancerCare.

Dr. Schapira: You write so beautifully about having and surviving cancer. How did being a doctor affect
your experience as a patient?
Dr. Liberman: I had been working at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for 17 years as a
physician when I was diagnosed with stage IV lymphoma. It was very odd to be a patient, a cancer patient
in a cancer hospital where I had been a doctor for so many years. It felt like I was in a play in which I knew
all the lines, but I was reading the wrong part.
Dr. Schapira: Could you elaborate?
Dr. Liberman: As a doctor, I had always encouraged patients to take things one step at a time. There are
so many decision trees, and the results of one test can affect choices you’ll have to make down the line.
You could spend a lot of energy worrying about something that may never be a choice that’s relevant to
you. But when I was in the position of being a cancer patient, I realized that taking things one step at a
time is much easier said than done.
Dr. Schapira: Can you talk a little bit about fear? What were you most afraid of and what helped you get
through those fears?
Dr. Liberman: When you’re diagnosed, all of this information comes at you. The doctors talk about what
you have and what’s going to be done. It’s hard to take all of that in, even for someone with a lot of
knowledge. They were going to put this catheter in my brain and I was going to have to have intravenous
chemotherapy as an inpatient and an outpatient. I was really scared. A dear friend who also was a cancer
survivor said to me, “You don’t have to agree to do the whole thing; you just have to agree to start and see
how it goes.” That gives you the feeling that you have some control over what’s going on. What helped was
telling myself that this one thing is what I’m doing; I’m just doing this now.


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