Cancer Diagnosis While in Medical School Offered Unique Insights into Patient Experience

Steve Haberkorn knows he’s not the first to pursue a career in medicine out of a desire to help people. But that’s why he did it, to help in any way he could and to work to improve people’s lives.

Through his studies at the University of Colorado Medical School, he learned how empathy is necessary to help others. Clinicians need to see things from the patient’s perspective.

So when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in January 2019, nearly halfway through medical research, he embarked on a personal medical journey that he finds sometimes overwhelming and quite frightening. Three and a half years after his cancer-free anniversary, as he prepares to graduate and begin his anesthesiology residency at the University of California School of Medicine, he explains how his own experiences have made him a better doctor. I look back on what you have done for me.

“My experience amplified my empathy and desire to care for the person in front of me, not just the illness,” says Herberkorn. “When I went back to study medicine and returned to the hospital as a clinician, I felt that I had become a better provider after my experiences.”

pursue a passion for science

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Haberkorn has always had a passion for science and half planned to study physics in college. But his plans took a big turn when he decided to major in sociology at Willamette University in Oregon instead.

“I loved science, but there was also another part of me that cared so much about social issues and the human side of things that mattered to me,” Haberkorn explains. “Obviously medicine is at the intersection of those things, but it wasn’t really on my radar. As an adult, things came to me so easily, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it.” I didn’t have to understand yet.”

After graduating, I progressed through a series of internships at think tanks, local political activism, and the US Congressional Office. He eventually found work with the Oregon state government in the foreclosure prevention program during the Great Recession. He knew he valued good policy and good governance, but that wasn’t his true passion. He felt to himself that he should have pursued a career in science.

His then-girlfriend (now wife) came from a family of doctors, and Herbacorn’s mother was a nurse. “So I had great role models and I started to think I could do what they were doing,” he says. . “I learned how to work hard and realized that medicine is a place where you can work in the field of science and work with people to directly improve their lives.”

5-15-23 View with Steve Harborcorn's wife

Steve Habercorn on a hike with his wife Shannon.

But he wasn’t ready to just apply to medical school. In 2012, he began his three-year post-bachelor’s degree program to take all required medical courses, and as a medical researcher in pulmonary and critical care drug trials at Oregon Health and Science University. He served two years.

So he felt ready to apply to medical school.

seek diagnosis

In an odd moment, a week before Herbacorn started classes at Cal State Medical School in 2017, he and his wife gave birth to their first child. “The story behind it is that we were trying to conceive for a year and a half and didn’t get pregnant,” he explains. “At the time, I was interviewing for medical school, so I said let’s take a break from trying to conceive. And of course, that’s when I got pregnant.

“Medical school was hard because it was two big life changes at once, but we were so happy to have our daughter. And I really loved medical school.” .”

5-15-23 Steve Habercorn white coat

Steve Hubercohn, wife Shannon, and one-week-old daughter Clara at the 2017 White Coat Awards Ceremony.

But in January 2019, she noticed a hard testicle and called the oncology department at UC Health University of Colorado Hospital because she didn’t have a primary care doctor at the time. He learned that he could not get an appointment right away and that he needed to work with his primary care doctor.

“So I was going through what a lot of people do, making phone calls and trying to figure out what to do next,” Haberkorn says.

A few weeks later, I woke up one morning with severe swelling, went to the emergency room, and was diagnosed almost immediately. Within days, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor in his testicle. Ironically, the day of his surgery, if he had attended class, would have been the day he would undergo a pathology test for testicular cancer.

Unfortunately, a CT scan after surgery revealed that the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in my abdomen. At that point, he was nearing the appointment he set when he first felt a hard testicle, and is a urological oncologist, member of the CU Cancer Center, and associate professor of medical oncology at the CU School of Medicine. Started working with a certain Elizabeth Kessler, MD.

He started three months of chemotherapy and took a break from school while his classmates studied for their final exams.

Treatment of last resort

When the first round of chemotherapy ended, imaging tests showed a tumor in his abdomen growing and invading surrounding organs. He underwent another surgery to remove the tumor and left kidney, but follow-up imaging revealed that the cancer was rapidly recurring throughout his abdomen. It’s filling the entire liver, one or two spots in the lung, and where there used to be a tumor. in the meantime.

Testicular cancer is notoriously treatable, but “my case just happened to be very aggressive,” Haberkorn said. At that point, the cancer had not responded to other treatments, and high-dose chemotherapy was the only option left. He knew he had less than a 50% chance of it working.

“It was a big mindset shift for me and my whole family,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of conversations about how we approach the end of our lives and how we’re struggling with it.”

Through seven weeks of hospitalization for two rounds of high-dose chemotherapy, including a week in the ICU due to complications, Herberkorn was bolstered by support not only from family and friends, but also from the CU medical community. He and his wife credited much of their success to her endless support and saw hope in early signs that the treatment might be working.

A scan after high-dose chemotherapy showed that the cancer had disappeared with the treatment.

He received three more months of oral chemotherapy as a form of insurance to ensure that any remaining cancer cells were killed. The last time he took chemotherapy was in March 2020, the day his son was born.

5-15-23Children of Steve Habercorn

Steve Haberkorn with daughter Clara, now 5, and son Beck, now 3.

“A long time ago, when I was finishing my first chemo, I thought, ‘I’m a medical student, so I understand this.’ I’m going to,” says Haberkorn. “My wife and I were already discussing how to get back to normal life sooner. We wanted a second child and decided now was the right time for that.

“A few days after finding out she was pregnant, I found out that my cancer hadn’t actually gone away and was more aggressive than I had originally thought. We had to have very difficult conversations about whether she wanted to have a baby, even if I might not be able to save her, did she want to continue with the pregnancy? We assumed there was, but did not expect that we would have to have such a conversation.”

“I can be a person they can trust.”

Herbacorn took another year to recover, heal and study. He also had to retake his life’s worth of vaccines to compensate for his devastated immune system. He will re-enter medical school in the spring of 2021. That extra time gave him space for reflection and perspective.

5-15-23Steve Harborcorn family

Steve Habercorn with his wife Shannon and children Clara and Beck.

“At first, I was interested in the science of this disease and did some research, but as the disease progressed and the prognosis got worse and worse, I started thinking the other way around,” says Haberkorn. “I trust my doctors. We have a great team at CU and Dr. Kessler is a great oncologist, so I trust him to get the best possible care. I realized I didn’t want to look up the statistics. I knew the stats were not good – and being in a place like CU and having a great oncologist, I didn’t have to worry about my medications, I could just focus on being a patient. .”

He chose to specialize in anesthesiology partly because of his love of physiology and pharmacology and partly because of his experience in trusting doctors.

“A big part of an anesthesiologist’s job is to watch over and protect patients during this very vulnerable time when they are undergoing surgery and life is in your hands,” Haberkorn said. . “In the moments before and after surgery, when patients are often very frightened, I am able to put them at ease and answer all their questions thoroughly and compassionately. In a difficult situation, I can be someone they can trust and keep them safe.”

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