Talking With Hope Rugo: Dealing With Terminal Illness
A prominent oncologist who specializes in breast cancer treatment talks about what doctors don't -- and should -- tell their patients, and the best things family caregivers can do for someone with metastatic disease.
Faith Weil Rugo was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer in 1982. When it returned several years later, her daughter, Hope, experienced the difficulties many family caregivers face: an uncommunicative oncologist, unexpected turns as the disease progressed, and uncertainty about how to talk to her mother about death. The fact that Hope Rugo was a doctor -- an oncologist and hematologist specializing in blood disease and bone marrow transplantation -- didn't make it any easier.
In fact, Rugo says the experience glaringly revealed her profession's inadequacies at helping breast cancer patients deal with terminal illnesses. And that propelled her to switch her specialty to breast cancer treatment. As a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco for the past 18 years, Rugo now works with patients at UCSF's Carol Frank Buck Breast Care Center, where she is codirector of the clinical trials program. Part of her mission there is to make the experience of her patients and their caregivers better than it was for her mother and her.
Q. What was the deciding factor in your switching to breast cancer treatment?
A. I felt that there was clearly still a lot that could be done. Because my mother died from that disease and the support mechanisms for her at the end were insufficient, I thought this was a place where I could really use my energy to make a difference -- on an individual level, on a training level, and on a larger level. It's funny, because I couldn't deal with my mother's death and didn't deal with it appropriately up until the end, yet in some ways it was her energy and spirit that drove me to change and make what was the most important career decision of my life.