After a short period of feeling unusually tired, non-smoker Dr. Anthony Benchina was soon diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. In his second of three journal entries, Dr. Benchina recounts his own personal journey from physician to patient as he navigates the many stages of lung cancer diagnosis and treatment.
The week after a PET scan confirmed my tumors, I went in for my bronchoscopy and was told if the frozen-section came back positive the oncologist would see me that day. I was sedated for my “scoping” and when I fully awakened some time later my oncologist was in my room. So much for the drama and tension waiting for a biopsy report. The news? Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer (Adenocarcinoma). This was the first day of the new me-from retired family doctor to Stage 4 NSCLC. My oncologist, Jim, told me that the prognosis of course was quite guarded, I knew this and had discussed it with Susie after receiving the CT report. Thankfully, Mike, my pulmonologist, had sent some tissue off to be tested for some genetic abnormalities for which researchers were working hard to develop new “targeted” treatments. As a non-smoker I had about a 4-7 percent chance to be in the cohort with this abnormal gene. How ironic that Susie, my wife, would start praying that I had this specific cancer gene so as to open the door to more treatment options.
This test would take some time to be reported so Jim decided to start me on chemotherapy shortly after I had my port placed the following week. In the meantime, as if right on cue, after no action for five months we had an offer on our house, with the buyer wanting to move in on pretty short notice. We decided to sell our house and move to Tampa, so while I was having my port placed Susie was buying our new house on-line. Not as crazy as it sounds, we had researched the housing market during our visits to Tampa and our family in Tampa looked at it and gave a favorable report.
Susie and I accepted the diagnosis with equanimity. My background as a physician and Susie’s as an RN helped in this regard as we knew what we were facing and vowed to face the illness head-on, follow my doctor’s advice and give it our best shot. It was my experience while in practice that those patients who had a positive attitude in even the direst of circumstances had the best outcomes, and even more importantly, had a better quality of life. These people were my models, those I would try to emulate during my treatment. What an entirely unexpected blessing to get from all of those folks, to give back to me in such a way. They still inspire me. Many still send cards, notes, e-mails, call and let me know that they pray for me or send me good thoughts. It was now my turn to experience the other side of the medical partnership, that of the patient. I have strived to be as compliant as possible, but at the same time have not been shy about asking important questions regarding my illness and treatment. This has been an easy task for me as I have been fortunate to have not just very knowledgeable and competent doctors and other caregivers, but just as importantly they have been entirely open and giving of their time to help me and my family through this entire process. I have no doubt that they treat all patients as deferentially, not for a moment do I believe that I am treated in a special way because I happen to be a doctor.
I’m sure that my medical background has given me somewhat of a leg up in managing this disease. I understand the medical jargon as does Susie. We understand why tests are done and what they involve. We understand when my doctor goes over my results. Knowing the rather dismal longevity statistics for Stage 4 NSCLC was rather daunting, but I also knew that these numbers lag what is happening with current cancer treatment.
The most difficult part by far was having to tell our girls about my illness. I knew how upset they would be and didn’t want to hurt them in any way. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was to make those two phone calls with the bad news. A lot of tears were shed at first but everyone rallied to the cause. Given the gravity of the news I was concerned about even short term plans. Would we be able to go to Chicago to house-sit and look after the cats while Katie and Jeff went on their belated honeymoon? Would Tara and Charles be able to go on their cruise, or would I be too sick for them to want to be away.
Over the years I had been requested by family members from time to time not to tell their loved one who had been diagnosed with a serious illness the news; this was done with the best of intentions as they didn’t want him or her to suffer unduly-they thought he or she would be unable to handle the bad news. My personal opinion is that this strategy puts everyone at a disadvantage. I believe that honesty is the best policy but at the same time the matter should be handled delicately and the patient should be assured that his or her best interests will be of primary importance at all times, and decisions will not be made outside of that context. This is so crucial because your strongest allies and supporters will be your family-they will be in the forefront of helping you with your illness and treatment so they ought to be brought on board as soon as possible.
The decision to tell friends and other family is entirely up to each individual and I would respect whatever decision is arrived at. I made the decision to inform these folks of my illness and in my case it proved to be wise. The outpouring of help and support was beyond anything I would have expected—bringing over meals, offering to help us pack or even move our belongings to Tampa, praying for us, wishing us well, running errands—anything that needed to be done. This was of immeasurable help to us. Our children and their husbands took time off work, helped us pack, drove one of our cars to Tampa, helped prepare our new home for our arrival.
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My Journey: Dr. Anthony Benchina's Story