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My Turn: A cancer survivor's valentine to her oncologist

The patient's doctor helped her keep her sanity when she was enduring chemo and radiation.

October 24, 2011|By Peggy Stacy, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Oncologist Dr. Linnea Chap was always in her corner, a patient writes.
Oncologist Dr. Linnea Chap was always in her corner, a patient writes. (Leslie Talley )

Two weeks after my double mastectomy, I lay on the exam table, slightly feverish from the plastic drains that attached beneath my skin and snaked silently under my shirt. Like a macabre version of speed dating, I had already met with five oncologists. My case was difficult and required the best of the best. Waiting for Dr. Linnea Chap to walk through the door, I closed my eyes in exhaustion and despair.

Dr. Chap had an encyclopedic understanding of breast cancer, but she didn't overwhelm me with detailed explanations of tumor grade or cell replication. Instead, she spoke simply, offering only the information she thought would be useful on that awful day in September 2002.

She projected neither false hope nor pessimism. There were no promises of living long enough to see my teenage daughter choose her prom dress or frame my son's college diploma, but there were no hints that it was impossible either. Instead Dr. Chap radiated keen intelligence and a calm demeanor. And despite my stupor, my fever, my self-pity and abject terror, I could not help but notice that Linnea Chap, M.D., was wearing a really great outfit.

As Dr. Chap began to explain the three intravenous drugs I would receive to blast apart any remaining cancer and the medications she would prescribe to mitigate their assault on my body, I began to cry. I made her describe the anti-nausea cocktail so many times that she finally said, "OK, you don't get to ask me that anymore." I remember wishing I still had a sense of humor so I could tell my new doctor, "I used to be funny. Really."

Although I would surely die without treatment, I was so frightened I really didn't know if I could go through with it. Dr. Chap asked me if I would like to see the infusion room. "Come on," she encouraged, as I trailed behind her.

I was stunned to see women watching DVDs and flipping through magazines as chemicals pumped into their veins; a woman wearing a paisley head scarf was addressing bat mitzvah invitations.

Finally, Dr. Chap said the one thing that I could live with: "Why don't you try it once?"

I survived chemotherapy, radiation, losing my hair, Tamoxifen and Arimidex; Linnea Chap survived having me as her patient. In nine years, she has never failed to answer my questions, citing studies, probabilities and common sense.

These days we share details of our lives like old friends as her fingers fly across my scars. Yet my concerns are taken seriously, even the time I feared the hole in my retina was metastatic disease. "Never say never," she replied, "but it would be like a hen with teeth." Dr. Chap's brilliance and steely competence saved my life, but her uncanny sensitivity to the whisper-thin tightrope between information and foreboding saved my sanity.

Every December I shop for a little bauble for my favorite oncologist. While the card spells out "Happy Holidays" in red ink, the subtext reads, "Thank you Dr. Chap, for another year of family celebrations, for my good health and for being my doctor."

Peggy Stacy is a writing tutor and breast cancer survivor. She lives in Pacific Palisades.

My Turn is a forum for readers to recount an experience related to health or fitness. Submissions should be 500 words or fewer, are subject to editing and condensation and become the property of The Times. Email health@latimes.com. Read more at latimes.com/myturn.

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