How the lessons from breast cancer saved this physician from burnout

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October is traditionally known as breast cancer awareness month. For me, seeing all the pink on social media is a stark reminder of my brush with the terror of breast cancer.

As I was about to scrub into an operation, I got a call from my office manager. She asked if I would be at my wife’s doctor’s appointment with my partner that afternoon. I told her I was busy, but I would try. She said, “No, you will be at that appointment. Right?”

That’s when it hit me. My office manager had seen my wife’s stereotactic breast biopsy report, and we were about to get bad news. She was making sure I would be there to support my wife. I told her I would be there. After scrubbing for my case, I walked into the operating room where the tech asked if I was OK because I looked as white as a bedsheet.

That day in 2006, we began our journey into the inner workings of breast cancer. One of my partners called me the next morning, having heard the news, and asked if I wanted him to take my call that weekend. I took him up on the offer as I didn’t seem to be up to the task. I called my office manager that next day and had her cancel everything on my schedule for the next month. Urgent things would go to my partners, and elective stuff would get rescheduled.

As horrible as the next nine months and three surgeries were, I learned some lessons and had some life-changing realizations. The silver lining to the breast cancer cloud. Here are four things I learned that have changed my life.

I’m not as important as I think I am

When we heard the diagnosis, I was very busy. Besides running a full-time general surgeon practice and managing my 64 apartment units, I was the president of this, the vice-president of that, secretary over here, treasurer of this group, leading a finance class, worship leader at church, rehearsing as the lead in a musical, as well as being a member on several committees and boards.

A few months earlier, my wife and I had a conversation about how she thought I was too busy and should cut back on some of the things I was doing. I told her I was needed in each of the organizations, and I was not willing to step down from any of them. We compromised with the idea that I would not replace my involvement in committees as my terms expired. That would slowly decrease my involvement over the next few years.

The day after I heard the diagnosis, I made some calls. I told each organization I was involved with — that my wife had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I needed to take some time off to help her, so I would be leaving the committee/board/organization as of today. Everyone understood and wished me well.

I only kept two things on my schedule: It was nearing opening night for the musical that I was the lead in, and I felt there wasn’t enough time to replace me, and we only had a couple of weeks left in the Crown Financial Class we were leading that involved only two hours once a week.

Every one of the organizations I left went right on without me as if I had never been there. Other people stepped into my role. My leaving left the same hole as if I had pulled my finger out of a bucket of water. My presence was not needed nearly as much as I thought it was. The world continued on, even without my leadership.

Learning this important lesson was life-changing. I never served on another hospital committee since they could do fine without me. Time with my family now trumped time on committees since I was my family’s only husband and father.

Your spouse is your most important asset

During the next nine months, my wife had three surgeries, and I had one. During the post-op period for each operation, we took care of each other. I gained a new appreciation for what my patients go through when recovering from surgery.

After seeing what we needed help after our respective operations, I wondered how my single patients survived the days following their surgeries. When you can’t move without significant pain, nothing gets done. Shopping, cooking, cleaning, bathing, dressing and every other aspect of life is severely affected when recovering from surgery.

After my wife’s initial surgery, I spent the night in a cot beside her while she was in the hospital. There are a lot of little needs that the nurses don’t have time to provide. I helped her reposition, walk to the bathroom, get a drink, and kept her company when she was awake. I gained new insight on how much a family member’s presence can help in the hospital.

Don’t wait for retirement to live your dreams

When we were first dealing with the diagnosis, we didn’t know what the future would hold or how much time we had left together. Our mortality was made apparent by this event. It was a wake-up call that life is short.

Carolyn had been telling me for years that she wanted to go on a cruise to Alaska. But for some reason, every time I booked a vacation, it was not an Alaskan cruise. Why was that? Why were we not fulfilling an easy to fulfill dream? Each year we went on a vacation, so why didn’t this one reach the top of our vacation list?

Within the next few weeks, I booked a cruise to Alaska. We were not going to wait any longer to live our dreams. If there was something we wanted to do, now was the time to do it. We might not have an opportunity in the future. I realized that waiting until we retire before fulfilling our dreams was a bad idea. What if one of us didn’t make it to retirement?

I recently published a story about a solo practitioner who died suddenly at an early age. He and his wife will never be able to fulfill their dreams together.

Now I teach people to move one item from their bucket list to their calendar every year. Life is shorter than we think, and our expiration date is unknown. Live your life today, don’t wait until you retire. Just don’t go into debt chasing those dreams, as that is a different problem you don’t need.

Financial security can prevent burnout

When breast cancer knocked on our door, we were debt-free and well on our way to total financial freedom. We had more than six month’s living expenses in the bank, lived on only half of our income and had significant cash flow coming from our real estate investments. I could easily afford to take a month off.

What if we had been living paycheck to paycheck like many physicians? What if we didn’t have enough money in the bank so I could take off a month unexpectedly? What if my debt payments were driving my need to work?

Before the cancer diagnosis, I was already very busy. Adding Carolyn’s doctor appointments, issues dealing with a new cancer diagnosis, surgery and recovery time to an already full schedule would have pushed me over the brink towards burnout.

I was so thankful we had been working on our financial fitness since the day we got married. I could easily afford to take significant time off. Besides taking off the first month, which included Carolyn’s first surgery and recovery, I also took time off with each subsequent surgery, including my own.

Many doctors burn out when that last straw gets added to an already full schedule, and they realize that there is no way they can reduce their work schedule and still meet the financial obligations they have forced upon themselves.

If I had had debt and was planning on using my credit card for my emergency fund, I would have been in trouble. I would either have continued working to support our lifestyle, leaving my wife to get through this crisis without me, or I would have gone deeper into debt with the loss of income and new medical bills. (Insurance doesn’t cover everything.)

Don’t rely on borrowing money to get through a crisis. Repaying the added debt can cost more than just the added interest, it can pull you toward burnout, bankruptcy or worse.

So what happened to our life? When the final pathology came back after the mastectomy and reconstructive surgeries, the final diagnosis was ductal carcinoma in situ. The surgery was curative. We got our life back and now deal with an increased surveillance with her elevated risk of future breast cancer. We took that Alaska cruise.

I gained a new perspective of what my patients go through when recovering from surgery. We bumped up our emergency funds to an even higher number for greater safety and flexibility. I stopped volunteering for committees. I worked fewer hours. I learned to say “yes” to fun and exciting opportunities with my family and “no” to extra work hours. I eventually retired from medicine at age 54 after working part-time for three years as a locum doctor.

I believe the lessons I learned during our breast cancer experience saved me from burnout. I was so busy that I think burnout was right around the corner. Thankfully, I saw the light.

I’m thankful that Carolyn’s primary care doctor is suggesting she get an early baseline mammogram. She was only 43 years old and had no family history of breast cancer. Yet, her first mammogram was positive, and a stereotactic biopsy proved the case. I shudder to think of what life would have been like had she not had that early diagnosis, but instead ended up with a metastatic breast cancer.

Today we are living a dream, and before COVID, we were traveling the world exploring new things together. I thought my bucket list would get shorter, but it didn’t. Seems that every time we do something on the list, we find two more things to add. I will never finish everything on that list, but I intend to die trying. The picture with this article is of a sunset gondola ride through Venice on our four-week 25th wedding anniversary trip through France and Italy.

How are your finances? Can you weather a storm? How are you doing on your bucket list? Please make the effort this week to move one thing from your bucket list onto your calendar. Don’t wait for next year. Next year may never come.

Cory Fawcett is a general surgeon and can be reached at Financial Success MD.  He is the author of The Doctors Guide to Starting Your Practice RightThe Doctors Guide to Eliminating Debt, and The Doctors Guide to Smart Career Alternatives and Retirement.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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