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Medical Ethicists Confront Cancer Themselves

  • Broadcast in Caregiving
Powerful Patient

Powerful Patient


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Dr. Rebecca Dresser, editor of and contributor to a new book on medical ethics and cancer, was diagnosed with head and neck cancer six years ago. While she has written and taught extensively about the legal and ethical dimensions of a variety of medical topics, personally enduring intense radiation and chemotherapy treatments spurred her interest in the ethics of cancer and cancer care medicine.

For perspective, she reached out to five colleagues, also medical ethicists, who had either had cancer themselves or had a spouse diagnosed with the disease. One of them had experienced both.   

“Since my diagnosis, I had been immersed in a crash course in real-world medical ethics,” writes Rebecca Dresser, editor of Malignant: Medical Ethicists Confront Cancer, published by Oxford University Press. She and her colleagues discuss their personal experiences with cancer or caring for loved ones with the disease, with lessons for doctors and nurses, patients, and caregivers.

Despite her own personal battle, Rebecca Dresser doesn’t view herself as a cancer “survivor.”

“Many people who have faced the disease are very courageous, but, in terms of defeating cancer, really, we were just lucky,” says Dresser, JD, the Daniel Noyes Kirby Professor of Law and professor of ethics at the School of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis.

Dr. Dresser speaks with Joyce Graff and Mike Lawing about what she learned about herself and others through this experience, and how her understanding of the ethics of cancer may have changed.