How does a physician cope with a new, potentially life-threatening diagnosis? What happens when the healer becomes the patient?
Heather Thompson Buum, M.D., Medical School Class of 1998, faced these questions three years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The experience, though obviously a difficult one, left her with a new appreciation for her patients’ journeys and with fresh insights into how she approaches her role as a teacher of future physicians at the University of Minnesota.
Thompson Buum transformed those hard-won lessons into two books published in 2019 by Joshua Tree Publishing — Mirth is God’s Medicine: Coping with Cancer as a Physician and With Mirth and Laughter: Finding Joy in Medicine After Cancer. Her books are not just about breast cancer but primary care, academic medicine, mentorship, and more.
The Medical Bulletin caught up with the busy physician, professor, and mother of two on a sunny summer morning near campus.
MB: Tell us about your diagnosis.
Heather Thompson Buum: I found a lump myself in April 2016 when I was 44; I hadn’t even had a screening mammogram yet. The workup revealed that my cancer was Stage I and multicentric, with two small foci. So a lumpectomy was out; I needed a mastectomy, but thankfully, no chemotherapy or radiation. I now take Tamoxifen to prevent recurrence.
MB: Your radiologist was a key person in your medical journey, wasn’t she?
HTB: Yes, she shared with me that she herself was a colon cancer survivor and recommended that I see her oncologist, Dr. Anne Blaes. Before that, my impulse had been to leave my workplace and go elsewhere. My radiologist persuaded me that choosing the U would save me time and energy I could use for other things.
MB: Was staying at the U the right choice?
HTB: Absolutely. By staying at the U, I have internationally renowned doctors who are also my colleagues. They offer moral support in addition to medical knowledge and technical expertise. Also, being right there on campus for labs, scans, appointments — or if need be, just to stop by the clinic — that was reassuring and helped me navigate the complex system more efficiently.
MB: How did your children handle your cancer diagnosis?
HTB: My kids were 8 and 11 years old at the time. Of course, they were initially shocked and scared, but since then, they have handled it very well. In fact, they have been a great source of support. I’ve been surprised by how mature they have been, asking thoughtful questions. It helps that I can quote fairly optimistic statistics, such as the 95 percent survival rate for Stage I breast cancer patients. And I tell them every day is a gift. Cancer has given all of us a greater appreciation for making the best of our time together.
MB: Did your approach to patient care change after you were a patient yourself?
HTB: I really started to put my patients at the forefront, and I discovered that sharing even a small part of my survivor story could open up a whole range of connections and a new level of empathy. I also learned that the little things could go a long way. For example, my surgeon, Dr. Todd Tuttle, gave me his cell phone number when he was leaving town. When I developed a rare complication called axillary web syndrome, I texted a photo of my arm to Dr. Tuttle. He diagnosed it right away, recommended physical therapy, and it soon resolved. Whatever we can do to make it easier for a patient to communicate with their care team, I am willing to try!
MB: Has your experience also changed the way you train doctors?
HTB: My teaching has also become more patient-centered. I recently arranged for two of my clinic patients — a colon cancer survivor and an appendicitis survivor — to speak to my class. The students loved it; they crave real patient interaction. I also emphasize to them how important it is to avoid excessively long hours and burnout. Self-care is important, too.
MB: How did you find time to write two books?
HTB: I found early morning, between 5 and 7 a.m., I could write for 30 minutes, and then I would write again later at night after the kids were in bed. I wrote in hotel rooms, on the plane after academic meetings, in the orthodontist’s waiting room, wherever I could carve out some time. I found it really enjoyable; it was “me time.”
MB: What’s next for you?
HTB: It’s been important to reconnect with those things that recharge my batteries. For me that’s singing [with the Oratorio Society of Minnesota], time with friends and family, running, and biking. And I continue to write; I have a blog on my website, and I’m thinking about writing another book on physician wellness.
Mirth is God’s Medicine: Coping with Cancer as a Physician and With Mirth and Laughter: Finding Joy in Medicine After Cancer are available online at Barnes and Noble and Amazon, or at the University of Minnesota Bookstore in Coffman Memorial Union. To read a chapter excerpt or her blog, visit www.doctor-heather.com.