Treat the patient, not the cancer: Injecting compassion into med school


Dr. Bento Soares knows cancer too intimately from both a personal and academic perspective.

He moved here 11 months ago for his position as senior associate dean for research in cancer biology and pharmacology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.

He had worked on the Human Genome Project at Columbia University and advocated to keep the research and sequencing accessible in a public database and not the proprietary research of a corporation.

When his wife of 25 years received a cancer diagnosis, Soares’ career focus began to spin off course. Within 14 months of diagnosis, Vera Soares died at age 46.

“We did everything together. Every test. Every doctor visit. When she died, I thought I had died,” he said.

“That changed my work and my life. It sharpened the focus of my research. I became completely devoted to cancer and felt it would be wonderful if I could contribute on any level to so many people affected by cancer.”

He ultimately remarried and within 3 months, his second wife was diagnosed with cancer. She died five years later.

Her doctor later apologized to Soares for not being more accessible in the final weeks of his wife’s life. The physician told Soares he had felt like a failure.

These two deaths allowed Soares the opportunity to understand cancer care from multiple perspectives, and he saw a glaring problem that created distress for patients and depression and burnout for physicians.

He told his wife’s physician that if he continues to fight cancer, he will always fail. If he shifts his focus to treating the patient with all her emotional and physical needs, he will always succeed because he will be with her from beginning to end. Every step.

Today, Soares is collaborating with Dr. Jean Clore, a clinical psychologist at UnityPoint Health, to bring a compassionate care curriculum to the medical school. Four faculty members will go through training in 2016 and will begin teaching compassionate care to medical students in 2017. Soares is looking for philanthropic support for the new curriculum.

“Once physicians can no longer offer a drug and they can no longer offer surgery, many have tremendous difficulty dealing with the situation,” he said. “They need to learn that their role goes beyond communicating bad news. They need to learn compassion.”

By cultivating cognitive compassion, physicians learn to avoid burnout and shift from feeling sadness to feeling positive emotions by providing care even in the face of a patient’s impending death.

Compassion cultivation training or mindfulness compassion helps to builds skills, Soares said.

“Even schoolchildren can learn mindful compassion, and the impact is incredible,” he said. “It cuts down on depression. It helps regulate emotion and develops focus and attention.”

This area of research has been a professional and personal mission for Soares.

He said, “Compassion is a muscle. It can be developed.”

He thinks of compassion less as acceptance and more as understanding.

“Every experience, no matter how brutal, can be viewed differently,” he said. “Whatever I was before my wife died was not what I became. I had the opportunity to remain alive and prioritized my life differently.”

He and colleagues will go through the one-year training program at Emory University and by early 2017 they will start teaching medical students, residents and faculty at the medical school.


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