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.

Isabel, her daughter at Penn, happened to call home the day Marisa got her official diagnosis. Isabel, 20 years old, is interested in medicine, and so much like her mother. When she was a little girl, she would go to bed at a little-girl time, but then call out, “Mommy, I can’t sleep, I have so much energy!”

Boy, was that familiar: A decade ago, back when she invented Breastcancer.org, Marisa slept maybe four hours a night. She kept her clinical practice going, full-bore, and out of her home office was answering more and more questions from women until two or three in the morning.

Now, though, Isabel heard something in her mother’s voice and asked what was wrong. “Well, I didn’t have such a great day,” Marisa said, and then told her why.
They cried.

Marisa assured her that it was caught early, that she would be all right. She was confident of that. In fact, even if the prognosis had looked worse, Marisa says, she would have had faith in her cure. She believes in modern medicine.

That night, she called 22-year-old Elias in Boston, and Henry, Isabel’s twin, in Connecticut. Easier with boys — they went right to the bottom line: “Are you okay?”

Yes. And now she had a new challenge. She would drill down, as hard as she could, into her own care.

Marisa allowed herself just “a few private pity parties, no one invited.” Certainly her 81-year-old mother Ellen, herself a breast cancer survivor, and sister Alice say they saw none of that, and she’s quite close to both. Marisa would beat this and come out stronger, maybe even have some fun along the way: Pre-surgery, she went to a studio to have “glam shots” taken as a memento; when she was positioned against a cold wall, “The girls went right back up” — Marisa whistles appreciatively — “to where they were supposed to be, and I went, ‘Yeah!’”

But what her mother and Alice and her website workers mostly saw was her focus and clarity, how she was, remembers Hope Wohl, the CEO of Breastcancer.org, “in serious mode for a while.”

Which was a big shift in itself. Anyone who knows Marisa knows that serious is not her mode, despite her work. She is addicted to buying all sorts of exotic stuff on eBay—such as lavender Prada platform sandals, originally $485, that she scored for 75 bucks. Or a humongous plaster-of-Paris rooster now perched in the kitchen of her Colonial home. She has a penchant for slightly raunchy humor: A Viennese rug in her foyer — another eBay purchase — has a line drawing of a woman with abstract circles depicting both her mouth and her vagina. A decade ago, a patient who became a close friend wanted to do something special for Marisa, so she offered to give her $200,000 to redo the kitchen and family room of her house. Marisa laughed at the offer — though she took the cash as seed money for her website. Then she invited her friend to New York City, where they spent a day padding the walls and ceiling of a bedroom in an apartment Marisa owns there in red-and-gold paisley fabric that she’d bought on a 3 a.m. foray into eBay.