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.

One afternoon in late April, Marisa Weiss got a call at home in Wynnewood from her doctor.

“I’m concerned,” the doctor told Marisa.

“O-kay … How concerned?”

“I’m … concerned.”

Earlier that day, Marisa had gone in for her annual mammogram, and now her doctor at Lankenau Hospital was looking at the results. Marisa knew that her breasts were difficult to read.

Her doctor had seen something, but wasn’t sure what it was.

Marisa Weiss — Dr. Marisa Weiss — wasn’t an ordinary patient. She’s a breast cancer physician herself, at Lankenau. So Marisa could have gone back in to the hospital that night and gotten the ball rolling quickly on a diagnosis. She was unsure what to do, though — which is unusual for her. Marisa usually pushes forward, fast, toward an answer. But she was tired. She’d already had a long day of work.

So she decided to wait until morning. What she was hearing from her doctor wasn’t exactly new — in the past, she’d had to go back for additional evaluations to make sure there were no problems. Her breasts were quite dense, and mammograms yield a high number of questionable results.

The next morning, Marisa got another mammogram at Lankenau that confirmed calcifications. And then she was given an ultrasound that showed something. The radiologist was obviously concerned.

Assuming the worst, Marisa moved fast now — which is much more like her. She got an MRI, and the results were ready late that day. There it was, lit up like a bulb on a Christmas tree: a lesion.

Seeing that MRI was, she says, “strangely reassuring.” Knowledge is a tricky thing. In her case, it helped. The cancer was small, apparently caught early. “What was reassuring was the absence of other problems elsewhere in the same breast or the other side or the lymph nodes.” The odds would be in her favor.

But it was still breast cancer.

This doctor getting cancer struck her community of patients and friends and co-workers as particularly strange and cruel. Pretty much everyone who has gone to Marisa Weiss says there’s not another doctor like her. The medical stuff — she’s a breast radiation oncologist — Marisa knows cold. But it’s not primarily that. It’s the way she sits with you, and wants to know how you’re doing, and gives you the time you need to tell her.

By the second visit, you greet her with a hug.

But it’s more than that, too, much more: 15 years ago, Marisa saw how her patients needed more information than she could give them in the office. So she wrote a book, Living Beyond Breast Cancer. But that wasn’t enough, either. Women getting breast cancer need to connect with and talk to other women who have gone through exactly what they have.