Physician heal thyself: diary of a physician turned patient

Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:

For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,

And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.” - The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran.

I want to write something, because I have been given an opportunity. For once, there is a table filled with women like me, women who look like me. Who have had a similar experience as me. Women who know the struggles I have faced as a black woman facing breast cancer; and I’ve been offered a seat at that table. A chance to share my story in a place where it might matter. A chance to share my story with the woman, who is staring down a double mastectomy, and sixteen rounds of chemotherapy, and is yearning for photos of someone who looks like her. Someone with dark skin. Someone young. Someone fat. Someone, who is not the person you always see.

Two years ago, I was searching the internet for just that person. The post-cancer Kara, who had survived it all and could tell me all about it.

Where was that girl, who could tell me that the crazy hyper-pigmentation that I experienced was just temporary? Even my oncologist didn’t know why Taxol destroyed my skin. My one source of pride in my physical appearance, now riddled with dark spots to the point that I was almost unrecognizable.

Where was that girl, who could relate to the feeling of losing hair that was not the hair you see in pictures? No...this was thick, heavy hair, coarse, with a life of its own. As I combed the streets of Paris (where I was vacationing when I lost my hair) all I wanted was someone who would know how to shave down the natural hair that I had nurtured for the better part of the last decade.

I searched for a lot during my cancer treatment. Post mastectomy photos. Success stories. Stories of failure. Metastatic stories.

But invariably, the women I saw, while similar in many ways, remained different in fundamental ways as well.

I was different.

Black (but not African American). So many of the black women who shared their stories were different from me in one essential aspect: as an Afro-Caribbean girl, I felt that I should never share my hardships, air my dirty laundry, invite the pity of those who would come to know that I had cancer.

Single. It’s easy to tell yourself that when you’re fighting cancer as a single woman, that there might be an upside. Not having to tell your children (because you don’t have any). Not having to worry about how your partner is coping (because you don’t have one). Not having to grapple with the myriad ways that breast cancer can destroy your sexuality (because you’re not having sex anyway). There’s a silver lining there, right?

And finally...A physician, who is also a patient. This might be the most meaningful part of my journey. Grappling with being a physician, trying to treat and heal myself, and then the vulnerability that comes with being a patient. Never having the freedom to just be a patient. Break down. Ask questions. Be upset. How could I? I understood better than most the fragility of this life. The fact that nothing had been promised to me, least of all good health. And I knew better than to cry.

But nothing in medical school could have prepared me for this. A four year residency, during which the problems of others constantly took precedence over my own, did not prepare me for this. And this is perhaps what I longed for the most over the past two years. A woman who was just like me, unique in many ways, but going through a similar struggle. As I write this, I can see the big picture though. If we all keep silent about our struggles, if we never share our stories, then we will always be alone, searching through the crowds, trying to make a connection, to find that person who is just like us. Different, and yet so very similar. The power of a platform that honours that cannot be understated.

This is hopefully just the tip of the iceberg. As we grow to understand that our stories have a value, that there is power in that, then perhaps the next person that comes along and is searching for a community will find it right here.



Kara Smythe is a breast cancer warrior who doesn’t just play a doctor on TV, she truly is one in real life.