Breast cancer diagnosis changes surgeon’s patient approach
GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — A Greenville surgeon said she has new insight into what breast cancer patients endure after being diagnosed with the disease herself.
“You don’t really appreciate what patients go through when they’re diagnosed with cancer,” said Dr. Sharon Ben-Or.
“It’s like a death,” she added. “You go through all the different phases of grief.”
As breast cancer awareness month is observed with pink ribbons and fundraising runs, Ben-Or said it’s important to remember those who are suffering through the emotional roller coaster and often debilitating treatments that come with a diagnosis.
“We have this image of what breast cancer is supposed to be — pink power and fight like a girl,” she said.
“But in the end, the patients are scared,” she added. “We try to live up to this image of what strength is supposed to be. And we don’t share the fear.”
Breast cancer is the second most common malignancy in women, according to the American Cancer Society.
About 266,120 women are expected to be diagnosed with it this year, the society reports, and about 41,000 will die from it.
Ben-Or, 42, has been a thoracic surgeon at Greenville Health System for the past four years.
During a meeting last year, one of the speakers mentioned that recommendations call for women to begin having mammograms at age 40.
She figured she’d better check it off her list of things to do, and spoke to a radiologist friend about setting it up.
The morning of the test, her friend called to say a calcification had been found. That led to a biopsy and some anxious hours as she waited for the results.
“Finally, she called me and said, ‘You have breast cancer,’” Ben-Or recalled. “I just felt everything in myself collapse. I realized that everything I had planned for had just died.”
After telling her stunned husband, she was able to reach her equally distressed father, who was vacationing in Japan.
“The hardest thing I ever had to do was to tell my father I had cancer,” she said. “I knew it would break his heart.”
Next came a whirlwind of doctor appointments and an MRI.
Although she had stage 1 cancer, it was a type that has a high rate of recurrence. So while she could have undergone radiation followed up by mammograms and MRIs twice a year, she opted for bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction.
“I was scared of it coming back,” she said.
Chemotherapy and its accompanying nausea, pain, exhaustion and hair loss came next.
Ben-Or found comfort in talking to other cancer patients, including a woman at the grocery store also undergoing chemo who spotted her bald head and asked about her treatments.
“It’s hard dealing with the nausea and pain. But a lot of people feel guilty complaining ... because we don’t want to be a burden on anyone,” she said. “It was only when I spoke to co-patients that I realized it was OK. It was nice to have someone who really got it.”
While the chemo ended in December, she felt its effects until March. Now she’s monitored by her oncologist every four months and will be taking drugs for years to prevent a recurrence.
Ben-Or was undergoing treatments to become pregnant at the time of diagnosis. But she’s put those plans on hold.
“It feels like this huge tornado called cancer went through my life for seven months,” she said. “I was so emotionally exhausted by all this, I need time to kind of reset and refuel before we cross that bridge.
“I’m still trying to rebuild my life.”
Now back at work, she said the experience changed her forever as a physician.
“It was very hard to be a patient and to go through this. It’s changed my approach,” she said.
“I learned that as a patient, I didn’t want my doctors or my family or friends to be optimists who said, ‘You can beat this,’” she added. “I just wanted them to tell me, ‘This sucks and I’m here for you.’”
While people said she was brave and strong during treatment, Ben-Or was thinking she was anything but.
“There are so many people diagnosed with cancer every day. I’m just one of them,” she said. “And I felt like a fake when people told me they admired me. I was so scared.”
So she tells patients that being afraid and angry and grief-stricken is a normal reaction to a terrible situation.
“It’s very important to remind people with breast cancer, or any cancer, that there’s a scared person inside,” she said. “And it’s OK to have those feelings. You have to acknowledge the unsavory feelings before you can move forward.”
Information from: The Greenville News, http://www.greenvillenews.com