DENVER (March 17, 2011) - Matt Myers got the diagnosis just two weeks after he was accepted to University of Colorado School of Medicine in 2006, quickly draining the euphoria from the moment.
It was Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“After the first diagnosis and treatment I thought, ‘I will never think about it again,’” he says. “And then I spent the next five years thinking about it all the time.”
“Immeasurably harder” is how Myers describes going through medical school with cancer. For one thing, the drugs interfered with his ability to concentrate.
“And to be quite honest, I would look at my colleagues and think ‘they don’t have holes in their abdomen. They are able to study without being depressed, without worrying about looming chemo treatments. ‘
“In their free time they’d say,’ let’s go skiing. I’d think, ‘let’s go get chemo. ‘“
The cure rate for Hodgkin’s is so high that Myers had every reason to believe he could put the cancer behind him. But in his first year, a scan rattled his confidence.
“They identified something on an image,” he says. He decided to take a year’s leave of absence to have surgery to remove the mass, but “the surgeon decided it would not be good for me because of its placement. He thought it would kill me. It was very close to the aorta.”
It turned out that he needed the year off anyway.
“I ended up breaking my collar bone mountain biking,” says Myers, 26, who has the lanky build of a devoted cyclist. “It didn’t really heal, and it was six or seven months before I could use my arm again. I spent a lot of time lying down. “
Recovered, he returned to school knowing that he would face more surgery eventually.
It happened in his third year. He had the operation over a weekend between family medicine and internal medicine blocks.
“It turns out that’s not enough time to recover,” Myers says dryly. “I was working under a resident who wanted to take the stairs all the time to get some exercise. I had stitches and was really sore, and I was worried my guts were going to fall out.”
He got chemotherapy treatments while working in pediatrics.
“I was sick. I was bald and anemic,” he says. “The really sick kids identified with me, I think. There was an instant connection in our eyes. Healthier kids, who hadn’t experienced disease, just thought I was a strange looking doctor. “
Now fit and healthy, Myers still easily connects with his patient – too well, he thinks.
“That’s partly why radiology is attractive to me – it’s more isolated from patients. Patients tend to become my friend. I have to not get so invested. Right now, I tell them, ‘You need to get this treatment, and yes, I’ll play basketball with you on Saturday.’ There is a balance that I haven’t mastered yet.
“In radiology you read the studies, you get to do therapies. It’s a little more roped off.”
He points out he never met any of his radiologists while getting cancer treatments.
But there are other reasons for his interest in the specialty.
“I knew within a week that I would become a radiologist because of my background in physics. And I’m a very visual person. If I can look at something and take the raw information and create a pattern, that’s the most thrilling thing in the world.”
As he prepares for his residency at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Myers knows his cancer treatments are most likely over. The 10-year survival rate for Hodgkin’s is 90 percent.
Looking back, were there any benefits to his experience?
“You know, I ask myself that every day. I think I’m am a lot nicer and more empathetic and compassionate. But I think I started out that way. My wife and I were talking, and I said that having cancer is like turning over a rock that can’t be pushed back. But it helps you to value what you’ve got.
“I am ecstatic to wake up every day. I am ecstatic to go to school. I am ecstatic to work in radiology. “