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From cancer survivor to cancer doctor

By Miriam Falco, CNN
updated 7:21 AM EDT, Tue April 23, 2013
  • Alyssa Rieber was a medical student when she was diagnosed with cancer
  • She continued with school while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation
  • She says her experience makes her treatment style a bit different

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle -- injury, illness or other hardship -- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed.

(CNN) -- A simple goal brought Alyssa Rieber to attend medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham 15 years ago.

"Just helping people," she says. "And I know that sounds so trite, and that's what everybody says, but that's really why I wanted to be a doctor... to help people."

Rieber says she loved the movie "Doc Hollywood" with Michael J. Fox, in which a doctor is sentenced to work in a small-town hospital.

"I was like, 'That's what I want to do.' So I was all ready to move out into a small town and take care of everybody and be the town doctor. And then during my first few months of med school, things shifted quite a bit (when) I was diagnosed with cancer."

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Rieber says learning about the different types of cancer and the latest research inspired her to study oncology. But it was meeting the other cancer patients in the waiting room that cemented her career path.

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"Getting to know them and their stories ... I just decided that that's what I wanted to do."

Rieber's cancer diagnosis was actually the result of an anatomy lesson three months into medical school. Her class was discussing an esophageal cancer patient who had a lymph node in his neck.

"I was assigned to evaluate the lymphatics of the thorax and so this was my assignment for this one case. And I did it, I gave a presentation, all of that."

The next week, she felt a lump in the same place the patient had it.

"Of course, as a hypochondriac medical student, (I thought) I had esophageal cancer and I was going to die."

It took a month before Rieber knew what exactly what she was dealing with. The diagnosis: Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph tissue found in the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, bone marrow and other sites, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Rieber says she knew her prognosis was good and was determined to continue medical school while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

She went on to start a fellowship at one of the premier cancer centers in the world, the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and she's never left. She now heads the oncology department at Houston's Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital.

Having been a cancer patient has influenced how she interacts with patients, she says.

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"I understand how they feel with the nausea. I understand how they feel when they don't want to eat and their family is pressuring them to eat," Rieber says. "Some people I tell that I had cancer, and some people I don't. It just depends on if it's going to help them in the situation."

Rieber admits her personal experience makes her treatment style a little different.

"I cry with my patients. I laugh ... I feel like I'm more emotionally connected with the patients. I'm a hugger, I'm a crier, and everybody knows it. And they're all used to it. And I think the patients like it."

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