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Oncologist Talks Endurance at Annual Breast Cancer Conference

Publication: Tyler Morning Telegraph, Tyler

By Danya Worchel

Dr. Svetislava Vukelja, an oncologist with Texas Oncology in Tyler, said she has learned a great deal from her breast cancer patients in 31 years.

"They have hope, they have endurance you wouldn't believe, and they didn't believe in their prognosis when they were diagnosed," she said shortly before speaking to about 100 of her colleagues at the 16th annual Tyler Breast Cancer Conference on Saturday at Harvey Convention Center. Dr. Vukelja directs the annual medical conference in Tyler each year.

The annual event, designed for physicians, included promising new therapies and treatment regimens for the prevention and treatment of breast cancer. There was a community forum Friday evening. The A. Webb Roberts Center for Continuing Medical Education Center of Baylor Health System in Dallas sponsors the forum and conference, and Texas Oncology supports it.

Vukelja, who has worked at Texas Oncology since 1996, said she identifies with many of her patients who are survivors of the disease. "I am also a survivor," she said. Dr. Vukelja, 61, and her mother, Katarina Maksimovich, left then-Yugoslavia in 1972 to escape communism. Her father had died in Yugoslavia when she was a young adult.

Despite poverty, a language barrier, and other obstacles, Dr. Vukelja became a physician and said she sees the role of a doctor or other medical professionals who treat cancer patients as a "coach and a light."

"My role is to make them realize they have a reserve built in -- I've learned that patients often don't realize the reserve they have. Some are statistic makers and some are statistic breakers," she said. The doctor also stressed that a physician and a patient must be on the same team during treatment. "Together we are stronger," she said.

Dr. Vukelja, who wrote two books, "Seeds," a memoir, and "Seeds from My Patients," shared some of the patient stories with her colleagues. In one case, a woman who had struggled with breast cancer that had spread throughout her body, developed tongue cancer. Part of her tongue had to be removed, and the doctor said she expected for her always positive patient to be slowed down, but the patient was not.

"When I walked in her room, she smiled and burst into a beautifully garbled 'alleluia' at the top of her weakened voice. She felt that having her tongue removed was an effort to stop her from sharing her faith. It only made her try harder to minister to others," Dr. Vukelja said. The proceeds from the "Seeds from My Patients" book go to support breast cancer research, she said.

In her other chapters, "Love," "Endurance," "Faith," "Prayer," "Joy," "Hope" and "Kindness," the doctor tells more stories about the lessons her patients have taught her.

This story originally appeared in the Tyler Morning Telegraph. 

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