When the Doctor Becomes the Patient

W. Phil Evans, MD
W. Phil Evans, M.D.

Sixteen years ago, Phil Evans, M.D., found himself in the unexpected role of patient. He was driving down the road when his cell phone rang. By the end of the conversation, he knew he would lose a kidney to cancer. What he didn’t know then was how his life would be forever changed.

Dr. Evans, Director of the Center for Breast Care and Professor of Radiology, doesn’t talk much about his diagnosis. It’s not a secret, it’s just that Dr. Evans, who is also the president of the American Cancer Society, prefers to focus more on the nation’s 12 million survivors and growing those numbers, rather than telling his personal story.

But for National Cancer Survivors Day on June 3, Dr. Evans discussed what surviving the disease means to him.

Q. How did you find out you had cancer?

A. I did not suspect anything was wrong and was undergoing testing for another reason when a mass on my left kidney was discovered, entirely by accident. A week later I had my kidney removed. The tumor was aggressive but small. Because it was found early, I fortunately did not need any treatment other than surgery.

Q. What did you learn from being a patient that you believe could help others facing a cancer diagnosis?

A. The experience gave me a great deal of insight into how important it is to be involved in your care. Ask a lot of questions. Make sure you understand your treatment and why it is being done.

Q. How did your experience change the way you dealt with patients?

A. In my profession as a diagnostic radiologist specializing in breast imaging, I look for signs of breast cancer on mammography, ultrasound, and MRI exams, trying to find it early when it is most curable. When cancer is found, I may be the first physician to tell the patient his or her diagnosis, and over the years, I have done this many times. Listening and being sensitive and empathetic was always of utmost concern to me when delivering the unwanted news. After my diagnosis, I could fully empathize with my patients and understand in a personal way the impact of a cancer diagnosis as never before. 

Q. How has cancer changed your life?

 A. I am much more grateful for the gift of life. I never let cancer control my life, but it made me question what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I appreciated my family, friends, and patients more than ever. I wanted to do more for the American Cancer Society, an organization dedicated to saving lives, where I have volunteered and received so much more than I have given.

Q. What advice do you have for cancer patients?

A. Stay positive and remain focused on moving forward. Trust the people taking care of you, but do not hesitate to ask questions. When diagnosed with cancer, it is easy to think you are the only person to ever have this disease. The good news is that 2 of 3 people diagnosed today live 5 years. The number of cancer survivors is growing and that means many more birthdays with those we love.