Surviving multiple cancers: a tale of blessings and exceptional doctors

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by Kim Downey (Physical Therapist)

Originally published by

Although it could be said that I’ve been very “unlucky” over the past couple of years due to surgeries and treatments for three separate cancers, I feel blessed by how “lucky” I have been to have had a combination of outstanding doctors.

Dealing with ongoing medical issues, as a health care professional, I fully appreciate the challenges facing patients and physicians alike in the current health care climate.

Thank you, doctors, for bearing witness to my experiences, ranging from traumatic moments to filling my heart with gratitude.

I began following physician blogs and reading books written by physicians in an attempt to understand your collective experience as doctors during these difficult times.

Recently, I’ve reached out to physicians whose blog posts resonate with me and share my mission to address physician well-being. I’ve connected with terrific doctors who, like my own physicians, manage to ensure their patients and fellow physicians feel seen, heard, and cared for.

I could write extensively about how numerous physicians have supported me in one way or another.

One of my doctors consistently called or messaged me to answer my questions. Whenever I didn’t know where else to turn for answers or help, he always responded. There were moments when he acknowledged my feelings with just one sentence: “I called because I didn’t want you to worry” or “I fully understand your concerns.” These validations were very kind and reassuring.

Another physician called me with my lab results, even though they were stable, to see how I was doing after discovering I had cancer for the third time. He told me to let him know if I ever wanted to talk, even if he couldn’t provide a solution, he could listen. At first, I thought, “He doesn’t have time to listen to me!” But he did. I knew he would.

A doctor I met while I was in the midst of some complicated medical issues took charge, handling everything systematically and intelligently. I had many questions early on, and he was great about answering them in person and through consistent, timely portal communications. He likened it to “peeling the layers of an onion.” He identified top priorities, and we proceeded from there. Without him, it would have taken significantly longer for me to receive accurate diagnoses and treatment.

After having a less-than-great experience with another doctor in the same specialty, I met one of my other physicians. I approached him with a medical concern but also expressed my reluctance for more tests. He was an excellent listener, incredibly kind, and compassionate. He assured me that he wouldn’t order any tests unless they provided important information he deemed necessary. I trusted him and consented to additional tests and procedures he believed were crucial. Unfortunately, that’s how my subsequent cancers were eventually discovered. I have him to thank for that. The cancers likely wouldn’t have been found for at least another year if it weren’t for him.

Another doctor (yes, I’ve been referred to many doctors!) shared that he had spent a lot of time thinking about my case, and I appreciated his words. He also offered kind encouragement, telling me I was doing a good job, which meant a lot to me. I heard he is going to retire soon. I wish him a long, happy, and healthy retirement!

One of my extraordinary physicians didn’t make me feel awkward for seeking a second opinion before my surgery. He even reserved a date for me until I received the second opinion. His high level of skill is equally matched by his kindness and understanding. I am grateful to have him as my doctor.

During an appointment with yet another physician, after confirming some initial information on his computer, he chose to sit in the most uncomfortable seat in the room—the footstool of the exam table—despite the availability of a rolling stool and another chair. From this action, I understood that he recognized the vulnerability felt by his cancer patients and willingly put himself in a vulnerable position as well. It created a safe and comfortable environment for an honest conversation.

At my follow-up visit with a physician I met after my second cancer surgery, she commented on how she had been thinking about me, acknowledging the challenges I had faced. It was a thoughtful gesture. On the day I unexpectedly found out that one of my doctors had passed away, she called me at the end of the day and patiently listened as I tearfully shared memories about him. She is truly amazing.

As I have connected with other physicians through their blogs, books, and social media posts that resonated with me, I have been humbled by the kindness and generosity of these doctors across the country. They have offered to communicate through phone calls, Zoom, or email to support me as I strive to find ways to help physicians within my local health care system.

Amidst all the challenges and burdens faced by doctors today, I am grateful that many physicians still manage to show up with their best selves, continuing to make an incredible impact in the lives of their patients. I am immensely grateful to the doctors I have contacted who have gone out of their way to offer feedback and suggestions on my mission to improve the lives of physicians. It warms my heart to witness such kindness.

What can I say about my experiences over the past couple of years? “Lucky?” “Unlucky?”

I choose “Thankful.”

Kim Downey is a seasoned healthcare professional and three time cancer survivor, She has experienced firsthand the challenges facing clinicians, including loss of autonomy, frustrations with the EMR, burnout, and moral injury. Her goal is to assist healthcare systems in creating and maintaining institutional initiatives and policy changes that promote a pervasive culture of caring and physician well-being.

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