When Doctors Get Cancer

Featured Article, Healthy Living
on June 1, 2012

In 2002, Dr. Ken Rybicki, was a 45-year-old internist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis and a dad with four young children when he diagnosed himself with pancreatic cancer. If the cancer had spread, he had a less than one percent chance of surviving. But it had not, and surgeons removed it all. “I woke from surgery knowing we could give surviving a try,” says Rybicki, now 55.

Gynecological oncologist Dr. Carolyn D. Runowicz, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Florida International University in Miami was 41 when she found a breast lump. Now 61, Runowicz just assumed she would survive the stage 2A cancer: “With chemo, I had an 85 percent chance of surviving. I focused on that.”

We think of doctors as experts on their specialties, cancer doctors included. But what happens when the examination tables are turned, and the oncologist becomes the cancer patient? Here, Rybicki and Runowicz share what they learned about survival from their own experiences with the disease. 

Uncertainty stalks. “There’s always a nagging doubt about whether the cancer is really gone,” says Rybicki, now a marathoner raising money for cancer. “You get a twinge of pain, and you say, ‘Uh oh, what’s that?’” But then he reminds himself how well he’s doing: “I’m in better shape now than when I played high-school football.”  He also knows now that if the cancer returns, his family can take care of themselves. “I learned that I didn’t need to be the one taking care of my wife.  She stepped right up and did what was needed. That was comforting: As much as you want people to need you, it’s good to know they will get by.”

No complaint is too small. Although Runowicz had little pain, she had a year of nausea, which she handled by sleeping. It reinforced her belief that patients need to tell doctors everything: “New symptoms, old symptoms, nausea—communicate with your health care team so you can get symptoms taken care of.”

Normalcy is a luxury.  Runowicz pushed through nausea and fatigue to hang onto a normal life, working at least several days a week. “But it’s individual,” she says. “Some people should take time off and focus on getting better. Others need to continue the norm.”

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Death seems closer. “I thought about what I wanted to do with my family, about the milestones I would miss—seeing my daughter graduate or walking her down the aisle,” says Rybicki. “But my family didn’t concentrate on that. We went on as usual. That helped a lot.” Instead of telling himself he was done for, he set goals, like going back to work and getting to his daughter’s soccer games. “You have to try to do things as normally as you can,” says Rybicki.

Empathy expands. “Cancer has helped me be more empathetic with patients but also tougher,” says Runowicz. “When a patient says, ‘I’m not losing my hair,’ I say, ‘I did. You can get through it, and you should do what you need to do.’”

“Lucky” now describes you. “It’s crazy, but cancer may be one of the best things to happen to me,” says Rybicki. “My family got closer, I pay attention to my health, and it made me a better doctor. I can talk to people about anything: radiation, chemo, IVs that won’t go in. I can relate.”