The Doctor as Patient, Part II of VI
This is part II of a series by Dr. Erika Landau that documents her experience as a physician battling breast cancer.
Link to Part I
I am still young, I eat healthy, I exercise, and I do not drink, never smoked, and never even tried any drugs. What did I do wrong? Why? I just lost my father to cancer a year ago, I was still grieving, I was still so angry that the cancer was not discovered in time, I was feeling guilty because, perhaps I should have seen it but I was too busy with my work and my family.
What will happen to my daughter, my husband, my patients? I have to find someone to take over my practice, quickly; I will not let it go after I worked so hard. I only had a new associate who was right out of residency, he was far from ready to take over, I hardly know him.
And my daughter? She is only 13. She will not even remember me; how will I tell her? Who will take care of her? Oh, my Lord, what if I have the gene, what if I passed it to her?
They will cut everything, I will look horrible and mutilated, and I will lose my hair while on chemo, just like my father and will never be able to work again and…
I was getting more and more panicky, all of this was overwhelming, I had to talk to someone, anyone. But whom? I could not tell my mom, a recent widow, Holocaust survivor; not my daughter, how will they help? Definitely could not tell my peers or my patients. I did not want to be perceived as being weak and I did not want anyone to feel sorry for me. I called one of my friends and she started crying. Great, now she was upset, she did not know what to say or do, it was a such a big mistake.
Then, I decided to call my husband, but this time, I was crying.
“Stop crying, please, I am sorry, what stage is it?” he asked practically, he is a dentist. “I am sorry to hear this, it will be OK”, he said trying to be reassuring.
“OK? How can it be OK, how can you say that, I have cancer, don’t you understand?”
“I do not know what to say, I… I… am sorry”, he said, completely unprepared for the attack. “I will see you at home”.
Of all his qualities, showing emotion is not one of them and he always minimalize issues, so opposite of me. Perhaps this is why we are still married.
He had a bout with cancer, in his early twenties and he, strongly and courageously went through several chemotherapy sessions and radiation. He has been well for a very long time but is so much stronger than I am, so much more athletic.
After I did stop crying, which took a while, I realized that he was actually right, I should know the staging. I called back the pathologist, it was after hours, and he left for the day.
It all started one week ago. An acquaintance of mine who was only one year older than me was diagnosed with breast cancer, stage three, her mother and a few aunts had it as well. She was undergoing chemo after surgery. She looked frail, pale, with a wig, with dark circles under her eyes, but she was optimistic, she was very hopeful.
And while I was admiring her strength, I thought then, if I had cancer and the disease itself did not kill me, the chemo will, for sure. I am very sensitive to medication of any kind.
That evening, I went home and, for the first time I did a self-breast exam. Obviously, I give good advice to my patients and their families. I am a respected physician, however, I am a very bad patient. When did I go to a physician for a yearly checkup? I cannot remember. Oh yes, two years ago for a hospital physical. I was perfectly well then, as I have been all my life.
I felt a lump. After the earlier conversation with that acquaintance, this time, I was the one who thought I was imagining things; it was all in my head. This is the first time I checked it and I felt a lump? It is absolutely not possible.