Feature: What Happens When One of the World’s Leading Breast Cancer Doctors Gets Breast Cancer?

After treating and advocating for breast cancer patients for more than a decade, Dr. Marisa Weiss received a diagnosis of her own.

And so a decade ago, Marisa came up with a place for women to go. Back then, the randomness of the Internet still seemed at odds with the precision and authority of medicine. Marisa understood how that could change, and she created a website out of her home office. Now, more women go to Breastcancer.org to find medically vetted information and to talk to each other in the dead of night about their confusion and despair than anyplace else. Women not only in America and Europe, but in countries like Uganda and Vietnam. Nine million visits from 229 countries in the past year.

So this wasn’t just any doctor getting sick. And Marisa, well, the question arose immediately how Marisa would deal with this. She’s not like the rest of us. There are a lot of stories about her around-the-clock energy, about how she connects so closely with patients, and there are also a lot of stories like this one: When her sister Alice was a freshman at Penn, Marisa, a high-school senior, visited her. They went to a deli near campus, and Alice spotted a guy she was interested in at another table.

Does he know about that? Marisa asked.

He didn’t.

Then you need to go talk to him.

Alice didn’t think that was a very good idea.

You need to go over to his table.


If you don’t go talk to him, I am going to climb up on this table, and I am going to start shouting your name.

Alice didn’t move.

Marisa started climbing up on the table.

She was 17 then; she’s 51 now. She hasn’t changed — not in that way. She’s still quite happy to climb up on tables in delis, so to speak, in pursuit of what she wants.

But this was different. How was Marisa Weiss going to take on breast cancer? A challenge of a different order. The disease that women fear the most.

That people in Marisa’s orbit
— her patients, especially — were stunned by her diagnosis makes no sense, at least not logically. As Marisa herself says, “You don’t get frequent flier miles” against bad news simply for doing what she does.

But there’s sense, and then there’s how we feel.

That’s something I know about all too well, because my wife, Karen, was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago, and it came back this spring. Both times, she went to see Marisa.

Breast cancer is complicated not just medically, but emotionally. It’s the most common cancer women get — in this country, one out of eight will get a diagnosis at some point in their lives — and it’s often aggressive. That engenders fear that can complicate treatment decisions and recovery. My wife assumed, when she was diagnosed the first time: I am going to die.

As a physician, Marisa cuts through that. Seeing her, you forget for a moment that she’s even the doctor, because, as Karen says, “You never feel that she has anywhere else to be except with you.” Her irreverence — Okay, she’ll say, starting her exam, it’s time to see the girls — lowers the temperature in a way medical school doesn’t teach.

That’s why there was shock in the lives she has touched over the inherent unfairness: If Marisa can get hit by this, too …  

She knew that telling her three children, all in college at the time, would be the hardest thing. In late April, they were going into finals, and she risked screwing up their school year with this news. But finals or not, she wasn’t postponing her treatment. They had to know.