How Surviving Cancer Made One Oncologist More Empathetic to His Patients


After undergoing treatment for leukemia in the middle of his career as a radiation oncologist, Dr. Curtis Mack noticed that he became a more empathetic and patient doctor.

After an acute lymphoblastic leukemia diagnosis came suddenly and unexpectedly for Dr. Curtis Mack, a radiation oncologist, he had to halt his career to undergo treatment – including the same type of treatment he regularly gave to patients.

Nowadays, as he is post-cancer and has returned to work, Mack explained to CURE® how his cancer experiences opened his eyes up to the struggles his patients have gone through, and how it enabled him to become more patient and empathetic.


In 2013, first week of June, I ran a half-marathon. And it was the Rock N’ Roll Marathon for the Lymphoma and Leukemia (Society). It was the first race I had done where I didn’t enjoy it. It was painful, I was working hard, I was breathing hard, and I was like, “Oh my gosh I don’t understand.” And I was a little slower than usual. And that was the end of it. I just kind of thought, “OK, well, whatever, I must not have trained well.” And the month progresses – I actually went camping at 1,000 feet. I had lots of problems with cold hands. I had to go inside the tent with a heater or sit around the fire instead of helping with cooking.

And then finally, I had a couple of runs the Fourth of July weekend. And I'm like, “Do you guys mind if I walk?” And they’re like “You never want to walk.” And so, I said, I don't know what's going on. I said, “I’m going to get a blood test, maybe something's going on.” So I asked my partner to put his name on an order for a blood test, and it came back the next day. And my nurse who was a chemo nurse said, “Oh, there's a problem.” She told him because she didn't want to tell me. And we sent it on to my one of my medical oncology partners. And it turned out I had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. My hemoglobin was just above five. And my white cells were at 120,000 … that was at 3:30 in the afternoon, and the next day at 8:00 in the morning, I got admitted to the hospital, finished my workup to get work placement and start chemotherapy.

I feel like I was a pretty empathetic guy before. But there's no way you can't be more empathetic. Just because I tell patients when they're talking about stuff – I'm going to radiate this or that or whatever – I'm like, “I had that radiated, I had that radiated, basically I had everything radiated because they radiate you head to toe.” So I tell people that this is a blip. Stay strong, keep eating and you'll get better. And this will get better. And you will enjoy food again and you will want to eat, and you will find (ways to be) social, all those things. So that is something that helps me when I think about it. And sometimes when you're having a hard day and you're really, really busy and then people are asking you question after question after question, I’m like, “OK. Remember, I was sick, I didn't feel good. I wanted to get better. And even as an oncologist, I didn't know all the answers.” So I get it, and I'm more patient.

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