Published by
Stanford Medicine

Cancer, Medicine and Society

A doctor recounts his wife's battle with cancer: "My knowledge was too clear-eyed"

We’ve written before about doctors becoming patients – but what happens when it’s the physician’s partner who becomes seriously ill? Over the weekend I came across a beautifully written, raw New York piece in which Memorial Sloan Kettering physician Peter Bach, MD, describes his late wife’s fight with cancer. He writes:

When Ruth was first diagnosed with breast cancer, friends would routinely comment to us along the lines of “It’s so good Peter knows so much about this disease.” But others disagreed, imagining I suffered more from my knowledge. Whether I was better or worse off I kept filing away as a pointless academic debate, like wondering if Edna Pontellier’s death in The Awakening was a resignation or a liberation, or whether Batman would ever just get over it. But in the lobby of my hospital, I knew the answer: My knowledge was too clear-eyed. I couldn’t pretend for another day or hour or minute that there were good days ahead.

Bach later describes the moment he knew the end was near:

We were sitting at a coffee shop when the light caught her just right and I saw it. I tried for a few moments to keep talking about whatever topic we had landed on, but I discreetly texted a friend of mine from college, also a doctor, in medicalspeak to share the terrible news—“scleral icterus.”

I couldn’t hold it in anyway. “Your eyes are yellow,” I blurted out.

She was stunned, and slightly panicked. “Why?” she asked. And then something totally unexpected—“What do they do about it?” I seized on this, my escape hatch from having to talk about her liver failing. I said I didn’t know, we’d have to ask. Another lie.

The yellowing, first of the whites of the eyes, later of the skin, is like the check-engine light turning on. The yellowing itself is irrelevant; it means bad things are happening inside. It meant her brain would soon become addled with toxins that at one time her liver could have cleared easily. She was near the end.

My phone pinged. My doctor friend, holding the medical jargon: “Oh [f**k].”

The full piece is worth a read.

Previously: A Stanford physician’s take on cancer prognoses, Both a doctor and a patient: Stanford physician talks about his hemophilia and Red Sunshine: One doctor’s journey surviving stage 3 breast cancer

Comment


Please read our comments policy before posting

Stanford Medicine Resources: