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A neurosurgeon’s journey from doctor to cancer patient

Earlier this week, I had the chance to hear Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, MD, discuss living with advanced-stage lung cancer in a conversation with palliative care specialist Timothy Quill, MD. The idea for the night’s event, which was held on the Stanford medical school campus, was to provide a good example of how the doctor-patient relationship can help improve quality of life for the very sick. On stage before a packed audience, Kalanithi, prodded by Quill’s gentle but pointed questions, told the story of how serious illness changed his life. As I wrote in an online story posted yesterday:

"Are there things in particular that you worry about now?," asked Quill... a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and an expert in end-of-life decision making. "Not really," [Kalanithi] said. "I am sad at not seeing my daughter grow up, at probably not being here long enough for her to have a memory of me. I try to worry about things that are actually changeable. I worry about getting my book finished. I’d like to have that done for my daughter to know me."

What surprised Kalanithi most about his life after being diagnosed with lung cancer was just how hard it was dealing with those "existential" questions, he told Quill:

"Having to deal with questions like, 'What am I going to do with my life?' was exceedingly difficult. After realizing I wasn’t going to die in weeks or months, figuring out what I was going to do with that time was a struggle."

Kalanithi has reorganized his priorities since his diagnosis in May 2013, setting new priorities for a much shorter lifespan than he once expected – planning for years instead of decades. He and his wife got their finances in order, they had their first child July 4. Kalanithi said he has found solace in his love of poetry, and through his writing. Kick-starting a writing career that he had planned to start in 20 years was one of those changes.

In January, he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times about his cross over from physician to patient titled: "How long have I got left?" He told the audience how surprised he was at the overwhelmingly positive response he received to the story. "My own thoughts on something very personal, really resonated with people. I still get an email every other day in response to the New York Times piece. It's a great inspiration to me to remember why writing is important." [Editor's note: Kalanithi's recent Q&A here on Scope has also drawn massive attention; it's already one of our most popular posts of the year.]

Kalanithi's final message, particularly to those young physicians and medical students in the audience, was to listen to your patients. Take time to get to know them. Remember why it is that you went to medical school. When asked if he treats his own patients differently since his diagnosis, he was characteristically thoughtful. "I think I felt a depth that I didn't before... But I had excellent role models. I was trained you don't just go over what are the risks and benefits. You really try to convey as much as you can about what it's going to feel like." He told his favorite example of a pediatric oncologist who he observed talking to parents whose daughter had just been diagnosed with a brain tumor. The doctor's advice: "You need to support each other. You have to prepare your patients as much as you can for that larger emotional experiential landscape. You have to get enough sleep."

Previously: "Stop skipping dessert:" A Stanford neurosurgeon and cancer patient discusses facing terminal illness and No one wants to talk about dying but we all need to.
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

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