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When a Breast Cancer Clinician Becomes a Patient

By Heather Maloney
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center staff

A breast cancer patient facing chemotherapy tells Hester Hill Schnipper that she's afraid of losing her hair. Schnipper, an oncology social worker at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, doesn't miss a beat.

"You're right, it's horrible. It's traumatic. But you can plan for it and manage it, so let's talk about that."

Schnipper doesn't sugarcoat things. But she does bring honesty and compassion to hundreds of women reeling from a breast cancer diagnosis, struggling through treatment, or coping with the effect the disease will have on their families.

But unlike many social workers, Schnipper has a unique perspective. She is not only the Chief of Oncology Social Work at BIDMC, she is a two-time breast cancer survivor.

Her first diagnosis came in 1993 when she was just 44. By that time, she had been counseling cancer patients at BIDMC for 15 years. But all of a sudden, she was on the other side of the fence.

"I thought I knew a lot about what it was like to live with breast cancer," Schnipper says. "But in the first minute after hearing the words from my own doctor, I realized I knew nothing. I was stunned by the news."

Schnipper's years of experience provided her with a lot of technical and medical knowledge, but even that turned out to be a double-edged sword.

"To some extent I had the same feelings of terror and sadness that every woman has, but I was better informed," she says. "Most women who receive a diagnosis like this don't know where to start in terms of finding a good doctor, etc., but I knew the vocabulary, so the logistics were easy."

The downside? "I know too much," she says. " I knew every bad thing that could possibly happen to me."

Schnipper's treatment included a grueling mix of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and endocrine hormonal therapy. But she kept working, seeing patients and running her support groups.

"In many ways I lived a double life as a cancer professional and a cancer patient. This irony has been the positive influence of my bad luck and my career....I have great credibility!"

In 2005, Schnipper was diagnosed with a second primary breast cancer, totally unrelated to the first. Again she was treated with surgery, chemotherapy, and ongoing endocrine hormonal therapy.

"The second time, it was more difficult," she says. "It was extremely traumatic for my patients to hear that I had breast cancer again."

But Schnipper soldiered through her second round of treatment, and even continued working, only missing the day following each chemo treatment. Four years later, she is healthy, and continuing to support other cancer patients and their families.

She started a blog on the BIDMC website, called " Living With Breast Cancer," and she fields questions through her " Ask Hester" online feature. Blog postings vary from "The top 10 things that helped me through breast cancer" to the latest on the new mammogram guidelines.

"What I try to do (with the blog) is just share good research information," Schnipper says. "I screen what's out there and find what I think is most useful for patients and their families."

Schnipper has also written a book, "After Breast Cancer: A Common Sense Guide to Life After Treatment," and plans the annual "Celebration of Life" event for cancer patients, survivors and their families. So even though she isn't still going through treatment, cancer continues to be part of her everyday life.

And she continues to be optimistic and upbeat. She offers her most important piece of advice for someone struggling with this disease:

"We will get you through this. The very first weeks after diagnosis are as bad as it gets. You learn to manage. And at some point it ends."

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.

Posted December 2009

Contact Information

BreastCare Center
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center
Shapiro Clinical Center, 5th floor 
330 Brookline Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
Phone: 617-667-2900
Fax: 617-667-9711