The other side of the stethoscope

Physician gains new outlook from cancer journey

Lori Lindstrom-Leifer, MDBefore spring 2013, Lori Lindstrom-Leifer, MD, was the textbook picture of health. Rarely sick or even prescribed medication, she brought a healthy energy to her work as a radiation oncologist at The University of Kansas Cancer Center.

Her strength would serve her well as she embarked on her most difficult journey yet that April – through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. She would emerge from this journey with a newfound commitment caring for cancer patients.

A journey begins

Dr. Lindstom-Leifer marks Easter Sunday 2013 among her most pivotal memories. During a shower that evening, she discovered a lump in her breast. Her 25 years of experience as a cancer physician told her it was breast cancer – more specifically, a 2 cm mass and likely stage II. Her guesstimate would prove spot-on.

“Having been in this profession as long as I have, I pretty much knew this was breast cancer,” she said. “As a physician, you kind of know too much, which can be both a blessing and a curse.”

The next morning, Dr. Lindstrom-Leifer called a friend and fellow oncologist to set up an appointment for an evaluation and biopsy. Working around two physicians’ busy schedules was no small feat, but they both understood that time was of the essence and found time that afternoon for the appointment. The biopsy confirmed Dr. Lindstrom’s assessment. She was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer.

“I had hoped and prayed I was wrong. This was one of those moments you can never really completely prepare yourself for,” Dr. Lindstrom-Leifer said. “To know that your life, which you value as precious, is potentially threatened by this illness is pretty sobering. And in that moment, I was suddenly the patient.”

Becoming the patient

For the first time, Dr. Lindstrom-Leifer had to navigate the ups and downs of a cancer journey from a patient’s perspective.

“It was emotionally very consuming, especially early on when there are so many decisions to make,” she said. “Most people want to get through the process as quickly as they can, but it is so important to slow down and take enough time to go through the information and options, and make a decision that is good for you.”

Tests revealed that her cancer had grown too extensive to allow for a lumpectomy, or surgical removal of the mass only. She would need a mastectomy, followed by medication. She would not need chemotherapy or radiation, however.

Dr. Lindstrom-Leifer underwent bilateral mastectomies, followed by medication courses of anastrozole and tamoxifen. She had an additional reconstructive surgery in October 2013. 

She is now under the watchful care of Qamar Khan, MD, breast medical oncologist at The University of Kansas Cancer Center. She continues her cancer medication and receives follow-up screenings and routine checkups as part of her survivorship care plan.

A new perspective

Dr. Lindstrom-Leifer is thankful for the perspective she gained as a patient.

“Having cancer is a life-changing event,” she said. “Being a patient, I realized how important it is to have people who truly listen and are supportive, without having their own agenda. Rather than try to convince my patients to understand what I think they should do, I now make a point to actively listen and help them make good decisions for themselves.”

Her outlook is reflected in a book she collaborated on with her husband, John Leifer, a health policy expert and author, who has done extensive research into the psychosocial needs of cancer patients. The book, After You Hear It’s Cancer, is a survival guide for patients and families navigating the road from diagnosis through treatment to survivorship.

An interesting twist: John was well into writing the first draft of the book before Dr. Lindstrom-Leifer embarked on her own cancer journey. What began as a manuscript designed to help others soon turned into a firsthand analysis of a patient’s cancer journey.

“Suddenly, what John was spending so much time researching became personal,” Dr. Lindstrom-Leifer said. 

Paying it forward

As a cancer survivor, Dr. Lindstrom-Leifer has a better understanding of the complex steps patients navigate. And she is grateful to the patients under her care who have shown her the ropes along the way.

“Among the strongest inspiration for me during my own experience was my patients,” said Dr. Lindstrom-Leifer. “Watching patients go through this journey for 25 years gave me the strength, confidence and comfort to face my own journey.”

She understands the importance of a friendly face, a smile and a good listener. She looks for ways to pay it forward by sharing her guidance and the best resources with each patient embarking on their journey through cancer care.

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