When a doctor becomes a cancer patient

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.”