Dr. Heather Thompson Buum is a primary care physician and an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota. She is also a breast cancer survivor.

Dr. Thompson Buum completed her medical education and internal medicine residency at the U of M, joining the faculty in 2002. “The University was expanding the primary care center and was looking to hire more female internists. It was great continuity for me because I had rotated through that clinic and enjoyed working with that patient population.”

In addition, she was excited about the opportunity to teach. She described the value of the synergistic relationship, “It is very rewarding to be able to interact and engage with learners. I can teach them things via my clinical experience, and they teach me about new diagnostic or treatment options that are cutting edge.”  

In 2016, at age 44, she found a lump, leading her to her first mammogram. An ultrasound and subsequent biopsy revealed early-stage breast cancer. “I quickly went from being a doctor to being a patient.” Up to that point, she had been relatively healthy. For the first time, she needed to find specialized care…an oncologist, a surgeon. She shared, “It was an abrupt learning curve, even as someone who is medically savvy.”

Faced with a series of medical decisions regarding her well-being, she began to journal about her experience as a coping mechanism. She recognized that she wasn’t just writing about the technical aspects of her treatment but also the patient experience. “I wrote about being in an MRI machine, what it's like to be waiting for test results…waiting for the phone call about the next step in treatment.”

After writing a few chapters, she shared her journal with a colleague who was also battling cancer. He was so impressed he encouraged her to continue writing and ultimately share it with a publisher. She eventually connected with an independent publisher in 2019. Her writing coalesced into two books: Mirth is God's Medicine: Coping with Cancer as a Physician and With Mirth and Laughter: Finding Joy in Medicine After Cancer.  

Writing has created some powerful points of connection for Dr. Thompson Buum. She has spoken to cancer survivors, sharing her story with frankness and humor. Her writing even helped her advance professionally, underscoring the value of alternative forms of scholarship.

Perhaps most importantly, as she describes, “The writing became less about me and my health story and more about my patients, the medical students, the residents and also about the importance of mentorship. It is particularly relevant as physicians are experiencing high levels of burnout, and building relationships and feeling connected will help mitigate that.” 

After becoming immersed in the healthcare system from a patient's perspective, she gained valuable insights that profoundly influenced her approach as a physician. “Eventually, I realized that reflecting on my experiences as a patient was making me a better doctor. It even affected the way I teach, putting the patient's perspective first.”  

Dr. Thompson Buum is now a Course Director for Human Health and Disease in the Medical School and the Interim Division Director for Geriatrics, Palliative and Primary Care. She continues to blog and center the patient experience in her teaching.