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When Physicians Get Cancer

Internist William Tierney was 48 when he learned he had lymphoma. His cancer is now in remission, and it's unlikely it will return. But he is more prone to other types of cancer.
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Internist William Tierney was 48 when he learned he had lymphoma. His cancer is now in remission, and it's unlikely it will return. But he is more prone to other types of cancer.

Dealing with a potentially fatal cancer is difficult for anyone, but doctors with cancer face a special challenge. They're accustomed to giving medical care, not receiving it. And they know better than most what their future might look like.

Dr. William Tierney, an internist with Indiana University School of Medicine, wasn't happy being known all of a sudden as "the guy with cancer."

"You want to be normal, not self-pitying or any more dependent than you have to be," says Tierney.

For Dr. Elizabeth McKinley, an internist with Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, knowledge that she had cancer hit her at odd times, sapping her hope.

"I'd find myself just weeping," she recalls, asking herself, "Will I see my kids get older? Am I going to die? Will I be in pain? Will my husband be all right?"

Tierney learned he had lymphoma at the age of 48. McKinley was 36 when she was told she had breast cancer. The two later met at a medical meeting and decided to write an article addressed to other doctors. They wanted to share what they had learned as patients, and what they learned about hope and dependency.

Today, Tierney's cancer is still in remission, and McKinley's has relapsed to her bone.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.