When physicians confront a serious personal illness, they may discover that the transition to the “sick” role is challenging and not easy. We conducted a qualitative study in which a group of doctors with cancer (DP) was compared with a group of patients with cancer, not doctors (NDP) but with a degree of education, qualifications, and a professional role comparable to that of a doctor.


The main objective was to evaluate the effect of the diagnosis and the treatment of cancer on both the patient’s personal and professional life. It was also designed to understand the effect that the experience of cancer may have on the subsequent clinical practice of DP.


The eligibility criteria included diagnosis of tumors of different sites and at any stage of disease treated with local (surgery, radiotherapy) or systemic (chemotherapy, hormonal, target) therapies or a combination of both; patients actively working. A semi-structured interview was used to collect information about the patient’s cancer experiences. In both groups, six main themes and ten subthemes were identified.


From July to November 2021, 59 patients were enrolled in the study. Among them, 29 were DP and 30 were NDP. The median age and gender were 55.9 years ± 9.3 SD (range 38-82 y), M/F ratio 12/17 for DP, and 56.3 years ± 8.9 SD (range 40-83 y), M/F ratio 11/19 for NDP, respectively. The main themes were: theme 1, practical aspects related to diagnosis: most of the DP did not encounter difficulties in performing the tests necessary to confirm the diagnosis of cancer, unlike what was observed in NDP. Theme 2, cancer diagnosis experience: Many DP and NDP felt prepared for their own cancer experience. Two-thirds of DP already knew their cancer prognosis from their previous background knowledge and one-third of NDP did not want to discuss the prognosis in depth with their referring oncologists for the fear of learning that their cancer had a poor prognosis. Theme 3, treatment experience: for many DP, having a professional background contributed to more active participation in care and also in the management of side effects of treatments. Most NDP were satisfied with the treatment received in the hospital and the relationship with the health professionals. Theme 4, changes in work: None of the patients from both the groups stopped working permanently or lost their job because of the disease. A higher number of DP and NDP reported a loss of interest in their job. Theme 5, changes in personal/family life and friendships: more than half of the patients in both groups developed a new perspective on their private lives. Theme 6, comfort from faith: most of the patients in both groups who followed a faith, found comfort in that faith. For DP only, we explored the theme of the change in the doctor/patient relationship. Important findings from our study included positive changes in the doctor’s clinical practice including having a more empathic relationship with patients, greater consideration of the psychological impact of cancer, and greater attention to certain symptoms of cancer reported by patients.


This study suggests the need to know the special needs of professional patients, in particular, related to the emotional difficulties, maintenance of privacy, and the need for support on their return to work. These results can help to foster improvements in current cancer care practices.

Keywords: Cancer, Cancer treatment, Doctors, Cancer/patient relationship, Empathy, Family.
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