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Patient to Physician: My Cancer Story


During the week, I meet with patients and their families and help guide them through their cancer journey. Little do they know that I’ve been in their shoes. When I was a freshman in high school, I had the opportunity to go on a youth leadership bow hunting trip. One of the requirements to attend the trip was to have a pre-participation physical. During the physical exam, my pediatrician noticed something a little off and he sent me straight to Texas Children’s Hospital for additional testing. They allowed me to attend the bow hunting trip but told me to return early the following week. I returned to have a CT scan and other various tests. They soon discovered I had lymphoma. 

As a patient at Texas Children’s, I had the opportunity to attend Camp Periwinkle, a week long summer camp for children with cancer and their siblings. I was a camper for one year and have returned as a counselor for eight.

Growing up with a love of math and science, I had thought about medicine as a potential career path.  My experience as a patient opened my eyes to the world of pediatric oncology, but my time as a counselor at Camp Periwinkle is what drove me to become a pediatric oncologist. I really enjoyed working with the kids and the connection we shared.

Michael on ChemoMy battle with cancer is not something I share upfront when I first meet a patient and his or her parents. My patients find out about my past in various way: from the nurses in the clinic (who I’ve told are free to share my story), other families who’ve heard, and sometimes, when the time is right, from me. Usually it’s brought up when a patient is having a rough time with treatment, and I aim to provide some hope to them about the future.

You would think it’d be easier to talk to families about a new diagnosis of cancer, since I’ve been in that position, but it never gets easier. Sharing the diagnosis with the families is always hard. Most families bring their child to the doctor because of some symptom but never expect the underlying cause is cancer – and with that diagnosis you turn their world upside down. Every fight and battle is different and every situation unique.

One constant for me, though, is you don’t just treat the patient - you have to focus on the whole family. Having been through chemotherapy, I can understand what the children are going through and I am able to communicate with the parents about it. I can explain to parents some of the things the children are going through which children might not be able to articulate very well. One thing I tell the families is we notice children’s appetites, and sometimes their sense of smell, can change during therapy. I try to reassure parents that if their child isn’t eating it’s not their cooking, but what they smell and taste can change.

It took me a while to realize that my cancer journey was a gift - the gift wrap was really hard to get through, but without it I wouldn’t be here today at Texas Children’s working alongside my heroes who saved my life.  

Dr. Michael Gleason, pediatric oncologist