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Vet tackles new cancer patient: herself

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A 10-year old-cat with metastatic colon cancer, a husky with a necrotic tumour, a 13 1/2-year-old golden retriever with squamous cell carcinoma in his nose, a veterinary oncologist with thyroid cancer: One of these things is not like the others.

Current Florida resident and associate professor of surgical oncology, Dr. Sarah Boston is forced to become the patient instead of the doctor when she is diagnosed with thyroid cancer while living in Calgary. In this, her first book, the Canmore, Alta., native details the way this diagnosis wreaked havoc on her life and her practice.

As a small-animal veterinary surgeon married to a large-animal veterinarian, Boston is armed with a wealth of medical knowledge and skill, assets that keep her in good stead as she battles her way through Canada's human health-care system, where "insanely high taxes go toward an imperfect and overloaded but high-quality universal health-care system that ensures the same crappy service for everyone."

Boston highlights Canada's painfully slow wait times, lack of clear communication among physicians (and from them to patients), combined with the hostility of some health-care workers with an outraged tone that lends veracity to her absorbing, heartfelt and captivating tone.

Few people have access to a portable ultrasound machine and the knowledge to diagnose themselves with cancer. Boston, though, does just that, using her husband's portable unit to diagnosis herself accurately. Though both her GP and an endocrinologist assure her that the lump on her neck is benign, this veterinary oncologist has seen enough cases of thyroid cancer in animals that she can't abandon her anxiety and conviction that the mass on her neck is, indeed, cancerous.

Although she writes in an authentic, moving style, her relatively privileged position as a childless woman with extensive medical knowledge living at a very comfortable income level places her in a category to which few cancer survivors in this country can relate. Boston's ability to navigate Canada's flawed health-care system is one that far too few others share.

Her first book, then, is at its most revealing and engrossing when she details the system's defective aspects and the difficulty for patients to access effective care without becoming sicker in the interim between initial diagnosis and waiting for appointments.

Boston also writes engagingly about a variety of animals and their owners who have come to her for care. Her disarming style resonates when discussing these animals and her work, both of which she adores. Whereas human physicians' email addresses are not available online, apparently those of veterinarians are. Boston always replies to concerned owners feeling "the need to take some control over their dog's fate."

As she writes, "hope can be extinguished quickly, but you can give it back quickly, too."

In attempting to discover when in her life she had decided to become a veterinarian, she interviews her parents. Here Boston's humour is evident, as she discusses volunteering at a local animal clinic when she was eight, "something you could only get away with in a small town in the eighties."

Boston, however, is unlike most other children; as her reward for all of the work she does at the clinic, she is allowed to watch surgeries being performed, which she adores, even as a child. Asking questions throughout the procedures, the then-Canmore resident begins learning about veterinary science early and solidifying her conviction to become a veterinarian.

It's a good thing she does, because that veterinarian will go on to treat a number of animals successfully and, ultimately, must be her own advocate to ensure the quality of medical service she receives.

The physician must, quite literally, heal herself.


Elizabeth Hopkins is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2014 G7

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Updated on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at 7:25 AM CDT: Formatting.

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