Dr. Marla Shapiro on becoming a patient

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When you hear the name Dr. Marla Shapiro most think; respected Canadian doctor, medical consultant for CTV News, host of Balance TV or columnist for The Globe and Mail. This month, readers will have a chance to become familiar with Marla Shapiro, the patient, with the release of her new book, Life in the Balance: My Journey with Breast Cancer.

Two years after being diagnosed with an invasive form of breast cancer, a disease that will affect 22,000 Canadian women in 2006, Dr. Marla Shapiro is sharing her experience being on the other side of the examining table. In her book Dr. Marla candidly describes her experience as a patient – from diagnosis through chemotherapy, to the decision to remove both of her breasts, and finally, recovery.

“I never intended to write a book. Initially, when I was diagnosed, there was so much internal angst and fear, I found myself writing as a way of coping,” admits Dr. Marla. When she was approached by a literary agent eight months into her treatment she realized that everything she had been writing may be worthwhile to share and helpful to others battling a life-threatening illness.

Life in the Balance: My Journey with Breast Cancer is Dr. Marla’s candid account of her experience battling a life threatening illness, including the importance of humour and support as well as the challenges she faced going from doctor to patient. “When battling a life threatening illness, support is really what it’s all about, and for me, learning how to take that support was difficult because I’d always been in the role of giving support and being the person in charge. Being on the other side of the equation I found very difficult,” says Dr. Marla.

On whether or not being a patient has changed the way she will practise medicine, Dr. Marla maintains, “In terms of my approach to medicine, what became clear was that so much of the information that we [physicians] share stopped short of the extra support that patients need in terms of the questions they have and the emotional support they need. While I do try to maintain my objectivity because I do believe that patients need that more than anything, I can reach into my own experiences and offer them a type of support that I think is somewhat unique, having been through the experience myself. I don’t know that I have any more answers or will practise any differently except that the understanding of what it’s like to be on the other side of that examining table is all too real for me now.”

Dr. Marla’s experience as a patient has given her unique insight and she offers the following advice for health-care professionals dealing with patients battling a life-threatening disease, “As physicians caring for patients often our emphasis is on the physical journey they are taking with medications that have difficult side effects. It is important to open the door to our patients to invite them to talk about anything else they are concerned about. It helps to let them know that many of the emotional difficulties they will be experiencing are not unique to them alone and discussing them can help. It is important to remind them that the whole family will be affected and that they too might require an element of support.

“It helps to have a physician who can interpret those things you do not understand and often we believe we have been clear when in fact we have not. As physicians it is important to check back with the question confirming that you are clear and easily understandable, to invite patients to ask you those questions that they have and to reassure them that no question is small or unimportant.”ÊÊÊÊÊÊ

Life in the Balance: My Journey with Breast Cancer is a must-read for anyone whose life has been touched by cancer – patients, families of patients and health-care professionals.For more information visit: www.harpercollins.ca