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No cancer immunity for those with M.D.s

Somehow it always comes as a surprise – a doctor or his loved ones getting sick. Oh, sure, when I think about it rationally, I know physicians and their families are prone to the same illnesses and bad luck as the rest of us mortals.

But I’m not always rational when it comes to my health or that of my family. I suspect my unconscious wants to hold onto the romantic notion that someone who studies how the body works can stave off illness to himself and those close to him – and that makes him far better at healing me and mine.

This notion of the physician as superhuman, which doctors say many patients hold, is sometimes shared by practitioners themselves. Academics have noted that among some doctors there is an unspoken belief that by devoting themselves to caring for others, it should magically protect them from the same diseases they fight.

No one brings you back to reality faster on the subject of illness striking physicians than Dr. Nicholas Vogelzang, an oncologist with Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada and one of the world’s foremost cancer researchers.

He doesn’t have time to deal with romantic notions or magic. During his workdays, which often last 16 hours, he deals with facts, many of them unpleasant, including this one: One out of every four people will have cancer sometime in their lives.

So it’s not uncommon, he notes, that physicians are touched by cancer.

He’ll tell you matter-of-factly that in the ’80s he had Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system, and that the side effects of the radiation treatment have included damage to his neck, heart and thyroid.

He’ll also tell you, with real concern, that his wife, Diane, has been dealing with a sarcoma found in her left thigh, a malignant soft tissue tumor. Not long ago she had chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

“I can’t believe we let it go for three months,” Vogelzang, 62, said. “But we thought it was a bruise from horseback riding.”

With her husband away the other day at a conference in Chicago, Diane Vogelzang, 47, sat in her Summerlin home and talked about her cancer battle. Her hair, lost to chemo, was growing back.

“It’s been frightening,” she said. “I lost my first husband to cancer when he was only 40. I’m glad Nick has been able to line up doctors for me. I did that for my first husband and it was exhausting. It was nice to not have to worry about that.”

Though her husband deals with cancer patients every day, she said he was surprised by her utter exhaustion from chemo. “I told him it’s a wonder he doesn’t get more calls at home from worried patients than he does.”

What she worries about right now is that her husband doesn’t have any downtime from cancer.

“I used to be his outlet so he didn’t talk about cancer, but now it’s often been a 24 hour-a-day thing.”

The last thing Vogelzang wants is for his wife to worry about him: “I can handle it.”

And he said that while being a doctor doesn’t protect him and his family from the health challenges that ail others, it also doesn’t stop his family from experiencing the joys that others struck by cancer have told him they experience.

“It has affirmed our love,” he said. “You bond over little things: The joy of having hair, the joy of not having diarrhea, of realizing tomorrow could be worse than today. It has affirmed our love for life.

Paul Harasim is the medical reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His column appears Mondays. Harasim can be reached at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.

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