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Love And Rare Cancer: Widow Fights On For Eye Melanoma Research

Sara Selig and Gregg Stracks on the day they were engaged.

Sara Selig and Gregg Stracks on the day they were engaged. (Julie Harris)

Dr. Sara Selig’s living room is a tribute to the love of her life. Her wedding contract – a Jewish tradition – hangs in a frame over the mantle. Pictures of herself with her “beloved Gregg” rest on the table behind the couch, and were sewn into a quilt, handmade by a friend.

The love is still there, even though Gregg Stracks died 17 months ago. “Love and relationships don’t die when a person dies,” Sara says.

That’s why she keeps up her fight against the rare cancer that took his life: uveal melanoma, cancer of tissue in the eye.

Gregg’s diagnosis came seven years ago, shortly after the couple returned to the US from living in Kenya so Sara could finish her last year of medical school. After a run, Gregg noticed that the pavement looked wavy. When the same thing happened the next day, he went to an eye doctor and then a specialist.  Diagnosed with uveal melanoma, he quickly had surgery.

The ophthalmologists who treated it didn’t know the oncologists who treated it, or the researchers who studied it.

Sara was hopeful their cancer story was over; Gregg feared the worst. About a year later he was told the cancer had spread to his liver. Uveal melanoma will spread in roughly half of patients, and is nearly always fatal when it does. Gregg was given less than a year to live.

Sara had started her residency at Brigham And Women’s Hospital, specializing in internal medicine and global health; Gregg started a clinical trial – an early treatment that they hoped would give them more time together.

Gregg, an organizational psychologist who helped African patients cope with the emotional side of HIV and AIDS, wrapped up that work after his diagnosis, and – still feeling good – started a consulting business, so he could spend time closer to home.

His doctor told Sara and Gregg that research into uveal melanoma was lagging other cancers. The ophthalmologists who treated it didn’t know the oncologists who treated it, or the researchers who studied it, he said. So Sara began working with the Melanoma Research Foundation to organize meetings of doctors and researchers, and form Community United for Research and Education of Ocular Melanoma (CURE OM), which she now heads.

She’s since helped raise more than $1 million, most of it for research into uveal melanoma. Diagnosed in about 1,500-2,000 American patients per year,  it is mainly detected during routine eye exams when an otherwise flat mole at the back of the eye starts to thicken. Continue reading

Patient Angst: When You Just Have To Say ‘No’ To The Doctor

Dr. Annie Brewster, who has MS, struggled over the decision to reject her own doctor’s advice.

By Dr. Annie Brewster
Guest Contributor

Like most doctors, I am an overachiever and I have always been a “good” student. Throughout my education, I perfected the art of making my teachers happy. I made it through prep school, college at Stanford University and Harvard Medical School with high honors. I am used to doing what’s expected of me, and doing it well. I thrive on the rewards associated with such behavior.

But now, as a patient with Multiple Sclerosis, I find myself in an unfamiliar role. I am deliberately choosing to ignore my doctors advice. He wants me to be on medication, but I quit a month ago. While I trust that I am doing the right thing, I can’t help but feel that I am a “bad” patient, a disappointment. Undoubtedly, part of this is due to my neurotic, overachiever tendencies. My doctor has not reprimanded me. He has simply made his opinion clear, as he should. Still, I sense a subtle disapproval and I feel misunderstood and boxed in, like he doesn’t really see the whole me.

Because I sit on both sides — as doctor and patient — I am especially interested in exploring these feelings. Why do I feel like a disappointment? Is there such a thing as a “bad” patient? When should we listen to our doctors, and when should we not? As patients, are we free to disagree?

As a physician, I would like to say that doctors do not classify patients as “good” or “bad”, but I can’t. Consciously and unconsciously, and of course in varying degrees, we do. To be honest, my job is easiest when a patient accepts the diagnosis I provide, understands my explanation of the disease process and the pros and cons of various treatment options and ultimately follows my recommendations. It is particularly satisfying when patients do what I say, get better and then express gratitude. A neat and tidy package, wrapped up and sealed. A sense of mastery.

Patients who don’t follow my recommendations, on the other hand, can be frustrating. I am trying to help, but I can’t, or at least I think I can’t. In medicine, we label such patients “non-compliant,” a term fraught with negativity. Continue reading