Pathologist Creates Powerful Program Providing Patients an Up-Close and Personal Look at Their Cancer

  • 18-OCT-2019

  • Northfield, Ill

This innovative and unique program invites patients into the laboratory to see first-hand what their very own cancer looks like. The hope is that each patient is armed with more knowledge, strength and power to better manage the fear and anxiety that often comes after a cancer diagnosis.

Northfield, Ill.— Carol Palmer thought she beat the odds, after being diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at age 45. She successfully underwent treatment and was cancer free for almost two decades until a routine mammogram this year, revealed it had returned. “I can absorb a lot of bad news,” she says, “but it was a shock, it was a wakeup call.”

After everything she had been through, the diagnosis, the surgeries and the treatment, she had never really seen her own cancer. “I just thought it would be an amazing opportunity for me to come face to face with my cancer cells, seeing them right there in front of my eyes, trying to understand what is actually causing all this commotion inside my body.”

Lija Joseph, MD, FCAP, chief of pathology at Lowell General Hospital, outside Boston and a member of the College of American Pathologists (CAP), had that same thought. Because she is the physician who makes the cancer diagnosis, Dr. Joseph started an innovative program, inviting patients into her laboratory, where they can sit down and talk with her while getting an up-close and personal look at their very own cancer. As one of her patients put it: “To see the dragon I’m slaying.”

“It has been very powerful for me as a pathologist, to sit and talk with patients who are facing this dragon, head on,” she says. “A cancer diagnosis often makes my patients feel very vulnerable, but specifically seeing their own cancer cells under a microscope, to see what I see, empowers them, helping them to better understand their disease, it is a unique moment for them, it makes it real and helps them take control of what lies ahead.”

Dr. Joseph gives high praise to the surgeons and oncologists at Lowell General Hospital who have supported her efforts from the very beginning. “We are a team,” she says.

Anasuya Gunturi, MD, PhD, a medical oncologist at Lowell General, believed Dr. Joseph was on to something and began referring patients to her. “Immediately, I felt it was a great idea and how wonderful it would be for our patients to have the opportunity to actually see the disease that we are discussing when they come in for their visits.”

“When patients meet directly with a pathologist like Dr. Joseph,” she continues, “they understand their disease in such a direct way, and more importantly, they understand that their doctors are talking to each other. It makes them feel like they are being taken care of in a more comprehensive way, a real team effort.”

Fear and an overwhelming amount of information are huge factors after a cancer diagnosis. “There’s fear of the unknown, a loss of control,” Dr. Gunturi says. “The more information, the more understanding a person has about their illness, gives them the power and strength to face the future and what awaits them but more importantly to say, ‘I can handle this.’”

Since launching the program in March 2017, Dr. Joseph has met with more than 75 patients, both young and old. “They are truly coming to understand their illness, and this helps navigate their journey to wellness, completely and thoroughly. I am just a fellow traveler in that journey for them.” The word has spread about Dr. Joseph’s efforts and many other hospitals and institutions here in the United States and around the world, have contacted her wanting to create programs of their own.

Palmer says meeting with Dr. Joseph and learning more about her cancer gave her a “big sigh of relief, and greater peace of mind. I began to see the tremendous importance of the pathologist and that they are not just dealing with slides and cells, they are dealing with people like me and I love that.”

About the College of American Pathologists

As the world's largest organization of board-certified pathologists and leading provider of laboratory accreditation and proficiency testing programs, the College of American Pathologists (CAP) serves patients, pathologists, and the public by fostering and advocating excellence in the practice of pathology and laboratory medicine worldwide. For more information, visit yourpathologist.org to watch pathologists at work and see the stories of the patients who trust them with their care. Read the 2018 CAP Annual Report at CAP.ORG