Dr. Michael Weiner’s career of more than 45 years as a pediatric oncologist left him with a bevy of patient stories. So many in fact, that the Salisbury resident felt compelled to write a book.
Weiner, who is the vice chair in the department of pediatrics at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center, recently released his book “Living Cancer,” which features his recollection of some of the most important patient relationships he’s developed in his long career.
His career started in the 1970s. He decided he wanted to focus on child cancer patients after a rather standout incident occurred in medical school.
“This beautiful five- or six-year-old was diagnosed [with cancer],” Weiner said. “The professor I was working with told the parents it was tantamount to a death sentence. That was a little harsh. In that time...most [child] patients did die. I thought there was great opportunity to be in a field that had only one direction to go. And that was to improve outcome and improve quality of life for patients and the families. At that moment I decided this would be a career that I would pursue.”
Childhood cancer, he said, is relatively uncommon, especially compared to adult cancer. Around 15,000 childhood cancer patients are diagnosed each year, he said, meaning it’s a more intimate field. Weiner specifically focused on patients with leukemia and lymphoma.
“Because the numbers are small, even at a large center such as Columbia, it gives caregivers an opportunity to really get to know their patients and families well,” Weiner said.
And that’s what leads to his book, a collection of his own experiences with patients.
“One of the things that I always wanted to do was write a book,” Weiner said. “I think that I had some very rich experiences. I’ve cared for thousands of patients and their families and I remember many. The stories that I chose to share are particularly memorable because they are cases I became unusually close with either the patient or the family and had personal relationships that evolved from them.”
The book, he said, isn’t intended to be a self-help or how-to guide. And it’s not explicitly about the advancements in cancer treatment he and others at Columbia made. Instead, it’s about the human condition.
“Most of us will experience cancer personally or in a loved one,” Weiner said. “I wanted to try to illuminate some of the mysteries surrounding cancers. This isn’t a self-help book or meant to shock readers or present a neat, happy ending. It’s about people in times of struggle. I wanted to inspire and demonstrate resilience. I wanted to show that people can rise to the occasion even in the worst situation possible. That was the message that I really wanted to impart.”
One of the stories that does that, he said, is about a patient he refers to as Bill Oliver.
“He really exemplifies the fleeting nature of success,” Weiner said. “After initially responding to chemo and surgery...he recurred within weeks and it was a downward spiral. This was a young man of great promise.”
Another story, about a girl named Tonya, displayed the way he played a role in her life as more than a doctor.
“She was a teenage girl raised by a single mother,” Weiner said. “In some odd way I became a quasi parent to her. She said something to me I would never forget. She had a type of leukemia that was very aggressive. She was in the ICU and dying. She said ‘I trusted you and you let me down’ That was a very powerful statement that she made to me.”
The twist in Weiner’s life is that both he and his daughter have in the past been diagnosed with different forms of cancer.
“I was forced to sit on the other side of the desk and listen to a surgeon explain what was going to happen,” Weiner said. “It was a very revealing experience to be in that situation. Here I was. Now I had cancer myself. My own experiences were really very revealing. They added a tremendous amount of insight because I learned what goes through the mind of patients.”
Writing the book, Weiner said, was also a therapeutic experience.
“I think it was a combination of the right time and compelled to get it out there,” Weiner said about all the stories that have been in his memory for more than four decades. “The book is not a how-to book. It’s not how you navigate cancer. It’s rather a collection of true and personal stories of hope and bravery and survival and resilience in the face of the unimaginable. Some of the children did extremely well and others did not and they died. I thought it was important to share both the triumph and the sadness of a child’s death.”