Skip to content

    Breast Cancer Health Center

    Font Size

    A Breast Cancer Survivor's Grief: Losing Your Doctor

    Doctors aren't supposed to die before their patients. And when it happened to this breast cancer survivor, she felt scared and bereft.
    WebMD Feature

    I never expected to outlive my breast cancer surgeon. But almost a year to the day after we first met, Dr. Jeanne Petrek died in the most random, ironic of accidents, hit by an ambulance as she crossed a busy New York street on her way to work at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

    When I first met Dr. Petrek in April of 2004, my life had gone from that of a happy, 36-year-old newlywed to a terrified breast cancer patient in less than a week. The previous month, my husband and I had been talking about starting a family; now, we wondered if I'd live to see my 40th birthday.

    Recommended Related to Breast Cancer

    What I Learned from Breast Cancer

    One writer reveals what it's really like to live with the disease day-to-day — and honors the woman who helped her through the darkest moments. Last October, REDBOOK asked readers to send in their stories of how breast cancer had touched their lives — whether they themselves had the disease or had witnessed a loved one facing it down. The entries we received were poignant and powerful, making it difficult to select the grand-prize winner. Its author, Lauren Reece Flaum, 48, was diagnosed...

    Read the What I Learned from Breast Cancer article > >

    All our news had gone from bad to worse -- until we met Dr. Petrek. Despite her international reputation -- she was a leading researcher and the director of the breast surgery program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York -- she made us feel as if I were her only patient. As she outlined a plan of presurgical chemotherapy, followed by a lumpectomy and radiation, we felt ourselves absorbing her calm confidence that I could beat this.

    Over the next year, I grew to recognize Dr. Petrek's cell phone number on my caller ID, as she returned calls well into the evening when I was worried about an MRI result or upcoming surgery. She rejoiced with me when the chemotherapy wiped out the tumor, calling the results "remarkable." And just a month ago, she happily signed the health form required for us to begin an adoption, writing in the margin, "She will make a WONDERFUL mother!!!"

    After her sudden death, I was bereft -- and so were thousands of other women Dr. Petrek had treated. Within hours of hearing the news, emails and message board posts began flying: How could this be possible? We'd lost one of our greatest advocates, a doctor who'd fought not only to save our lives but to advance research that made our lives better after cancer. What would we ever do without her?

    Losing a doctor is difficult for anyone. We all struggle to cope when the family doctor retires or your pediatrician moves to another state. But it's all the more devastating when your doctor dies, particularly if they've helped you face a life-threatening or chronic illness. "I have had a wonderful internist for many years. If she died or even retired tomorrow, I would be heartbroken," says Mary Jane Massie, MD, an attending psychiatrist at Sloan-Kettering, who has talked with many of Dr. Petrek's current and former patients since her death. "But she didn't treat me for cancer or multiple sclerosis. That's a very important relationship."

    1 | 2 | 3

    Today on WebMD

    Breast Cancer Overview
    From mammograms to living after treatment.
    Dealing with breast cancer
    Get answers to your questions.
    woman having mammogram
    The 3 latest tips to know.
    woman undergoing breast cancer test
    Most abnormalities aren’t breast cancer.
    Resolved To Quit Smoking
    Breast Cancer Treatments Improving
    Woman getting mammogram
    Screening Tests for Women
    serious woman
    Pink badge on woman chest to support breat cancer
    what is your cancer risk
    breast cancer survivors