Heal Thyself: One Doctor's Story

Andy Wolff produced Katie Couric's series "Heal Thyself," which begins airing tonight on the CBS Evening News.
If you ever think you've had a hard day, think about Dr. Sam Hassenbusch, a neurosurgeon at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and you might reconsider.

Hassenbusch discovered almost two years ago that he had a large brain tumor, called a glioblastoma. In fact, it was huge. And it was exactly the kind of brain cancer he'd been removing from his patients for nearly 20 years. But now it was time to fight his own battle with such a deadly disease, which afflicts some 17,000 people a year, according to government statistics.

For Sam, it's so-far, so-good. He didn't expect to live more than about 12 months. Yet as of Wednesday, almost two years after surgery, there's no evidence of the tumor returning, which glioblastomas almost always do. So when I had the privilege of spending a day with him for our 3-part series starting tonight, I figured all would go as planned.

Boy, how wrong was I? Instead of just getting a behind-the-curtain view of the daily workings of a cancer hospital, I got a look at what it's like to be a cancer patient…a scary look.

We started filming early. Sam was doing a procedure on one of his patients. But around mid-morning, he went from doctor to patient … when he removed his pager, cellphone and white gown for his monthly MRI. It was to rule out the recurrence of any tumor. And I went about doing my job -- making sure we were in the right place at the right time filming the right stuff. And I wanted to be sure we understood what was happening.

When the MRI was over, Dr. Hassenbusch went straight to the technician's console to look at the pictures…and suddenly his face grew taut. His wife, Rhonda, who is always in the room for his MRIs, began to worry. He reached for the phone to call his treating physician -- a friend of his since medical school. Apparently, he explained to his friend/doctor that he saw a difference between the previous month's test and this one. Had the tumor grown back?

As the minutes grew, so did the tension. Then I asked him the key question on camera: What's happening?

Dr. Hassenbusch explained that he and his doctor were unsure whether the cancer had returned. He needed another more detailed test. So it was back into the MRI tube…never a fun experience. This time, it was especially hard. No one likes uncertainty, especially when it's all about life and death.

A second test actually showed that the spots he had seen on the first MRI were actually scar tissue -- signs of healing from his surgery and radiation treatments more than a year ago.

We all breathed a sigh of relief. And Dr. Hassenbusch bravely stood before our camera and explained: this is what it's like to be a cancer patient. You have to get used to living with uncertainty. It's not easy. It's not pleasant. Indeed, it can be lonely. But you must grow used to it.

Dr. Hassenbusch is more than three years away from actually being classified as "cured." But he is walking proof never to, as he says, take a cancer diagnosis lying down. You must actively learn as much as you can. Don't give up. Fight for your survival.

And most of all, be brave.