Like her colleagues, Dr. Melissa Labroli doesn’t wear a traditional white doctor’s coat because it sometimes scares her young patients.
While she was undergoing treatment recently for breast cancer, the 35-year-old mother of two faced her own fears about catching an illness while working at the job she loves
“I was always worried that someone was going to sneeze on my face, cough on me or I was going to touch something” and catch an infection, she said. “I washed my hands like crazy. I tried to watch where I stood in the room so the patients couldn’t sneeze on me. But I was always afraid I was going to get sick.”
Labroli’s concerns were understandable, since the chemotherapy and radiation treatments she underwent weakened her immune system, making it harder for her body to fight infection, according to Fox Chase Cancer Center breast surgeon Dr. Richard Bleicher.
She didn’t get sick, and after undergoing a double mastectomy, is currently in remission. But during her treatment, Labroli continued to see patients while undergoing grueling procedures that left her feeling lousy, at times, which is why many patients in Labroli’s situation take a leave from work, Bleicher said.
“You don’t want to exhaust yourself,” he said, adding that women who do want to work should “take it easy.”
Labroli’s mother, Jill, was also concerned about her decision to keep working. Nonetheless, Labroli felt it was the right thing to do.
“She would just look at my face and say ‘you look tired today and I don’t think you should go (to the office) or … until you get back in this house, I am going to worry about you,'” Labroli said. “I needed that distraction. I really did. I needed to leave cancer at home and come to work and do what I do best … and not think about if I am going to relapse.”
Dr. Thomas O’Donnell, one of her bosses, describes her as one of the most positive people he has ever met. “She didn’t miss a beat,” he said, adding she even reported to work when she had radiation burns, a common side effect of the treatment
Labroli, who studied at Thomas Jefferson University, describes herself as a positive person, though that attitude may have prevented her from recognizing the seriousness of her illness early on. Breast cancer is not typically found in someone as young as Labaroli, though it is not unheard of, according to Bleicher.
She was surprised that few patients and their families made a fuss about her condition. Jessica Matthews of Mt. Holly, whose sons Luke and Nicolas are Labroli’s patients, sent her flowers when she learned of her illness.
“I felt compassion for her as a mother,” Matthews said.
While Labroli appreciates the kind words that people say about her, she believes her experience as a patient has made her a better doctor.
“Now I understand that a lot of things happen in the waiting room and at home that patients bring into the (exam) room with them,” she said. “I try to be sensitive to the wait times and not rush people through and really get everyone’s questions answered.”
Labroli plans to participate in the annual Race for the Cure in the fall sponsored by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure affiliate in Philadelphia, where she hopes to meet other medical professionals coping with cancer.