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Experience with cancer teaches doctor valuable lessons

By Sharon Gray

When Dr. Taryn Hearn was just finishing her psychiatry residency training at Memorial a year ago, she discovered a lump on her neck. It turned out to be a lymphoma, and she soon found herself on the other side of medical treatment as a cancer patient.

“I’ve learned a lot from being a patient,” said the calm, young woman, who is now back at work as a psychiatrist and faculty member based at the Waterford Hospital. “Although I received wonderful care, I was once uncomfortable when I overheard a doctor say something about my case at the nursing desk within my earshot. That experience makes me more aware of communication on my unit.”

Dr. Hearn also found that information about community resources for blood-related cancer patients wasn’t widely promoted. “For example, I’m not aware of any Leukemia and Lymphoma Society branch in Newfoundland. In the mental health care system it can be even worse. I know there are community resources for mental health that I’m not aware of, and I am now trying to make those connections and make my patients aware of them.”

During her cancer treatment, there were small things that bothered her. “For example, when you’re getting chemotherapy from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. you don’t get lunch. Nobody told me that the first time!”

She was also initially confused about the length of time her treatment would last. “I understood I was to have four chemotherapies, but it turns out it was four each of two parts so it turned out to be 24 weeks of treatment rather than the 12 that I expected.”

To keep busy during her recovery, Dr. Hearn started entering on-line contests and won a trip for two to New York for fashion week. She’s already taken up that prize, delaying her last chemotherapy in order to make the trip. She also won a curling lesson with six-time national curling champion Colleen Jones, but has yet to receive the details on when that will take place.

The main lesson she took away from her personal battle with cancer is to be very clear to her own patients about what to expect from their treatment. “I let them know how long they will be in hospital and what side effects they can expect from their medications. There’s still a bit of a stigma around mental illness and a lot of people don’t take their medications properly, but I try to stress the importance of adherence.”

No-one expects to become ill, whether from cancer or a mental illness, but Dr. Hearn knows it can happen to anyone. “My experience was not the worst thing that can happen. The main problem was that I wanted my normal life back. I’m still not back to my normal level of activity, I used to run the Tely 10, but I’m working on building up my health. I’m very lucky to have received great medical care and have support from family and friends.”