Doctor walks patient's path

Cancer: A neurosurgeon returns to work, after treatment for prostate cancer, with a new perspective and new goals.

September 18, 2002|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

In early July, Dr. Benjamin Carson was operating on a young patient when a nurse put a telephone to his ear. He listened calmly as a voice on the other end told the neurosurgeon, who had undergone a biopsy a few days earlier, that he suffered from an aggressive form of prostate cancer.

He continued to operate, putting his concerns aside until the surgery was completed. But in that moment, Ben Carson, physician, became Ben Carson, patient.

Last week, after cancer surgery and a nearly monthlong medical leave, the renowned Johns Hopkins doctor and author of inspirational books was back in the operating room.

He eased into a three-hour brain surgery on a 14-year-old girl with epilepsy. Later, he attended the board meeting of a local charity, examined a 2-year-old girl with spina bifida, treated four patients battling crippling facial pain, then jetted to San Diego to address a national convention of retirees.

"I feel tremendous," he says.

But in the time he spent resting at his pastoral home in northern Baltimore County, the boyish-looking surgeon said he had a rare chance to reflect on a work schedule that was too intense and on the curiously foreign experience of being seriously ill.

Though he has spent years treating and counseling children through their illnesses, Carson said he had never spent a day in a hospital sickbed. And though he is known as a doctor who brings compassion and prayer to the bedside, Carson never truly understood the out-of-control feeling that his patients must feel when they receive a grim diagnosis or experience severe pain.

Now, he does.

"I think I can identify a little bit more with being vulnerable, and why it becomes so important to really communicate with patients, to make them fully understand what's going on," said Carson.

While he hasn't undergone further treatment because he and his doctors believe his cancer was arrested, Carson, 50, is making some changes to safeguard his health and improve the quality of his life.

He's forsaken all meat and junk food - "no more sodas and chips and things like that" - and fashioned a diet of organic fruits and vegetables that he is now convinced bolsters the body's defenses against cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.

"Lots of salads, lettuce and tomatoes and cukes and carrots and beets and onions and things like that," said Carson, describing a regimen that has kept his wife, Candy, busy scouting local markets for the freshest produce.

And he vows to cut back on his demanding schedule. "I'm not going back to the same frenzied pace," Carson said between appointments last week.

Those who work with him say it might be difficult to keep him to his promise to shift gradually into his surgical schedule and carve some hours off his workweek. Carson, who leaves home about 6:30 each morning, said he would like simply to return home an hour earlier, say by 8 p.m.

It wasn't just his own illness that led him to this conclusion. Neurosurgeons, he said, die earlier than other doctors, perhaps because of the long hours and stress of their work.

The issue was tragically driven home Memorial Day weekend when Dr. Jeffery Williams, a fellow Hopkins neurosurgeon, died of a heart attack while exercising at the hospital's fitness center.

"It was totally out of the blue," said Carson. "He was 50 - we were the same age. There were so many people in neurosurgery who have died young, people I've known from other places. I was adding them up and doing the math."

Carson's diagnosis emerged slowly. Last year, a blood test taken during a routine physical showed that his PSA - a compound released by prostate cancer but also by a benign condition of the gland - was running higher than normal. It hadn't entered dangerous territory but was cause for concern.

Then, in the spring, a follow-up test revealed that the PSA (for prostate specific antigen) had reached 5.5 - half-again its previous level and past the reading of 4 that suggests the need for additional testing. Ultrasound provided hopeful evidence that the prostate was not unusually enlarged, so Carson went into his biopsy without greatly fearing the results.

But then he got that phone call confirming he had cancer.

"Later on, it really hit me," said Carson. "I thought, `Wow, I've got cancer, a really high grade of cancer. And, wow, I could really die.'"

Carson said his wife, who shares his deep religious beliefs and involvement in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, took the news stoically, offering the assurance that God would not deliver anything that her husband could not handle.

"At first, it's a shock," Candy Carson said, recalling the moment. "Then, you realize that God has a purpose in everything, and if it's time for Ben to go, it's probably the best time. If not, then he has some other things for Ben to do here on Earth."

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