Patient Care

When the doctor becomes the patient

photo of attendees at the survivorship symposium
Attendees for the inaugural Spector Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Symposium included cancer survivors, family members and caregivers.

“One year ago to the day,” Mark Varvares, MD, told an audience of cancer survivors, “I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.” A cancer surgeon himself, he went on to share an emotional personal experience with cancer that would alter his perspective on patient care.

The Department of Otolaryngology at Washington University School of Medicine brought together hundreds of cancer survivors and family members for the first annual Spector Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Symposium.

The survivorship symposium is the newest addition to a group of events, held April 24, that honor former head and neck surgeon and Professor Emeritus of Otolaryngology Gershon Spector, MD.

Mark Varvares, MD

Head and neck surgeon and Associate Professor of Otolaryngology Jason Rich, MD, welcomed attendees to the symposium and introduced the guest speaker – renowned head and neck surgeon and St. Louis native, Mark Varvares, MD, chair of Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery at Harvard University.

Varvares’ presentation was divided into three sections that highlighted his own cancer journey. In the first part, “But for the kindness of strangers,” he acknowledged the many blood, platelet and stem cell donors – people he will never know – that were so essential for his treatment and cure.

In part two, “The clinic visit,” he described the personal relationship with caregivers that developed over many ongoing weekly visits for evaluation and treatment, and how that experience changed his perception of his own patients’ need for personalized attention.

He then recognized the “attitude and gratitude” of cancer – how each patient addresses their new diagnosis and deals with the progresses and setbacks of treatment. Through his own setbacks, he learned to allow faith in a positive outcome and trust in his caregivers to not be at odds with the discipline of understanding the latest challenge he faced. He also acknowledged a profound sense of gratitude for the family, colleagues, caregivers and patients that shared and contributed to his experience.

Head and neck surgeon Jason Rich, MD, chats with a patient during the reception.

“I was deeply honored to participate in the inaugural head and neck cancer survivorship forum,” said Varvares. “It was wonderful to be able to share my experiences as both a cancer patient and a cancer surgeon and amazing to be able to connect with many of my former patients. It was very kind of the organizers to see to it that they were able to attend.”

Division Chief of Head and Neck Surgery Sid Puram, MD, PhD, then took the podium to announce the recent launch of the Siteman Head and Neck Tumor Center, a novel effort to integrate head and neck cancer patient care, research and education. The center – the first of its kind in the world – will not only improve coordinated patient care, but will promote patient access from across the globe, allow cutting edge research, and facilitate the translation of research from bench to bedside.

Rich closed the symposium with the announcement that the cancer survivors support group has been reinvigorated with a series of meetings focused on patient support. A reception followed, allowing patients and caregivers to interact on a social level.