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My Patient, My Teacher

I thought I knew a thing or two about treating illness. Then a young woman opened my eyes

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What happened in the many weeks that followed turned my attitude about my patients — and this patient in particular — on its head.

Lindsay refused the chemotherapy until she had answers about its impact on her ability to have children. And those answers were hard to get. She met with a medical oncologist, but he knew little beyond the fact that chemo can damage ovaries. She also met with fertility experts but found they knew little about cancer treatment. The gulf between the academic towers was broad and deep, and Lindsay realized she was not the first patient to fall through the cracks.

In that moment Lindsay began her one-woman crusade to get doctors and researchers to talk to one another, with a single-minded focus on addressing the fertility concerns of cancer patients. As her doctor, all I could do was watch in amazement as this young woman began to take on the medical establishment, and to teach all of us that a cancer diagnosis can sometimes be just a speed bump in life — that it should not define a person or her future.

Lindsay decided to freeze her eggs, and only then did she proceed with the chemotherapy. That was more than 10 years, one husband and three stunningly beautiful children ago. She was a crusader who listened to those around her, decided what she would and would not accept as scientific dogma, and literally revolutionized two fields — oncology and infertility.

Her nonprofit, Fertile Hope, is dedicated to helping cancer patients at risk of infertility. (Fertile Hope's programs were recently acquired by the Livestrong Foundation.)

For me, the lessons were profound and humbling. Lindsay changed who I am as a doctor. She taught me to listen to my patients and that no matter how young or old, every patient has a voice and deserves to be heard. And sometimes the patient — whether on the cusp of life or in its twilight — sees a future that the doctor hasn't even contemplated.

I'm thinking now of Martha, a 50-something attorney who lived for the courtroom. She also had cancer of the tongue and told me that if I couldn't preserve her speech and get her arguing cases again, she wouldn't have a life. She forced me to do one of the most creative surgeries I've ever done, and still get the cancer out. At that point I realized that my patients had the power to stretch not just my thinking, but the very way I work.

To this day, Lindsay and I stay in touch. And I get to see her every day in a gorgeous black-and-white photo that sits on my desk. People who look at the picture, taken on her wedding day in 2004, always ask, "Is this your daughter?" And I always smile and say yes ... and more.

Nancy L. Snyderman, M.D., is a head and neck surgeon, and chief medical editor for NBC News. She has written four books, including Dr. Nancy Snyderman’s Guide to Good Health for Women Over Forty. 

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BRAIN HEALTH: The latest research shows our brains don’t necessarily deteriorate as we age and brain atrophy is reversible. There are many ways to keep our brains fit, just as we exercise other parts of our body to keep them healthy.

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