Published on October 7, 2020
What Happens When an Oncologist Finds Out They Have Cancer?
On his first day as an oncology fellow, Dr. Mark Lewis realized something that would change his life forever. Listen in as he describes the experience of diagnosing his own cancer, sharing the news with his colleagues, and handling the initial workplace stigma that followed.
Dr. Lewis is joined by online Host, Patient Power Co-Founder, and patient advocate Esther Schorr. She guides the discussion with important questions about navigating the workplace hierarchy and how to approach the topic with peers.
This is Part 1 of a 3-part series. Watch all segments in the series below:
Transcript | Diagnosing My Own Cancer: Oncologist Shares His Cancer Story
How and When Did You Diagnose Your Own Cancer?
Let's start with you, Mark. When you got your cancer diagnosis, did you make the decision to tell your work and did you decide to tell?
Yes. I think I may be in a somewhat unique or at least privileged position there, Esther. Because, I actually made my diagnosis my very first day of being an oncologist.
I was starting my fellowship in oncology. I was sub-specializing in cancer care. I realized on day one that I had a hereditary tumor syndrome. Naturally, I was leaning on my colleagues for multiple forms of guidance. Both counsel as a patient, and then their advice about whether I should continue my training. I was, in a weird way, both very fortunate, but also sort of forced to disclose. That really has again been prism in which I've seen my entire career. Even after my training, I've had two employers since then. They could not have been more understanding.
In fact, arguably my status as a patient is something of a trump card to play. It sounds strange. Not necessarily on the employer side, but on the patient side. I think it gives me some hard-won empathy in the era of internet research where patients really can sometimes have the privilege of picking and choosing their doctors. Some people actually seek me out specifically because they want my perspective as a fellow patient. The bicameral mind of a patient position. Again, I think I’ve been tremendously lucky.
How Did You Tell Your Fellow Oncologists?
Obviously, this happened the first day of your fellowship. How did you tell people about it? How did you tell your cohorts? I'm not sure about the hierarchy. Would it be your attending or?
How did that work?
I told my peers, the people I was training with. Because I wanted them to know if I was out sick, that they would need to cover for me. I thought that was only fair to give them that forewarning. In terms of my employer, which was the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Again, I was lucky to have people that were just caring and understanding and sympathetic. Even if they couldn't be empathetic. I think there's an important distinction there.
What Challenges Did You Face While Sharing the News?
The other thing you should know, even though I was a doctor at the time, my very first diagnosis I was given was that I was a hypochondriac. Because, who finds their cancer on their first day of oncology fellowship. To the extent that some of the patients that we're talking to today have struggled to convince their physicians that there's something really wrong with them. I feel you on that. Once I got past that accusation and was able to provide physical proof, I never had to deal with that stigma again.
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