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Stanford University School of Medicine

"You have cancer": On being a doctor and receiving the news

Inquiring patients might want to know what their doctors would do for themselves in certain medical situations. (And, as recently discussed here, the answers might be surprising.) An article in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle surveys oncologists and other cancer specialists who have been diagnosed with a disease they study or treat. It describes how they respond to the news "You have cancer" - and if or how they choose to share their personal experiences with patients.

From the piece:

As a pathologist, [Kimberly Allison, MD, associate professor of pathology] typically sees patients' cells, rather than the patients themselves.

So it's not surprising that when she had a biopsy on her breast after noticing tissue changes in 2008, her first reaction was to be excited to see her own sample under the microscope. She assumed the sample would be benign, but when her colleagues came to her with the results, looking grim, she knew it was bad.
"I knew I needed to be worried," said Allison, who is now at Stanford but was working at the University of Washington in Seattle at the time. "I knew I was going to get aggressive treatment, but I was terrified about what that might be like. That fear was just the same as in any patient."

The article goes on to describe how Allison found support from fellow patients and even wrote a book about her experience with the disease. Her specialized knowledge of cells proved to be a key weapon against her illness:

She could look at her cancer cells under the microscope before they were wiped out by the treatments.

"Whenever I felt like I wanted to talk smack to it, I would look at it," she said. "I'd tell it, 'I never want to see you again.' "

Previously: A doctor recounts his wife's battle with cancer: "My knowledge was too clear-eyed", A Stanford physician's take on cancer prognoses - including his own, Both a doctor and a patient: Stanford physician talks about his hemophilia and Red Sunshine: One doctor's journey surviving stage 3 breast cancer

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