Bioethics Blogs

For cancer specialists, disease can make them better doctors

[San Francisco Chronicle]

Dr. Pamela Munster‘s colleagues viewed the mammogram results and then played out a scene she knows well: the furrowed brow, the intense look of concern, followed by the composed, reassuring face for the patient’s benefit.

They weren’t looking at her patient’s mammogram. These were Munster’s results. They were acting the same way she did when she was about to deliver bad news to her cancer patients.

“I’ve done this all,” said Munster, a breast cancer specialist who now runs UCSF’s early-phase clinical trials program. “They were looking at it intently, and it started to sink in that it might be bad.”

About 14.5 million people living in the United States have been told, in so many words, “You have cancer.” Some of those people are oncologists and other specialists in cancer.

So when they learn that they have the disease they specialize in, the reaction can be transformative, doctors agree. It can change the way they look at disease, affect the way they interact with patients and raise the credibility they have with them.

“There is a certain amount of credibility in having gone through the experience,” said Dr. Sandra Horning, Genentech’s chief medical officer and past president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45.

Horning, a top lymphoma specialist at Stanford before moving to Genentech, had a strong history of cancer in her family. She lost her father to cancer when she was in college, and her mother survived two types of cancer.

Those experiences brought greater understanding to her patients’ experiences, Horning said.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.