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A Journey of Faith: How Surviving Lymphoma Shaped Dr. Alyssa Rieber’s Perspective

September 15, 2021

This year, more than 150,000 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with blood cancer in the form of leukemia or either Hodgkin or non-Hodgkin lymphoma. For Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness Month, Alyssa G. Rieber, M.D., medical oncologist and hematologist at Texas Oncology–Fredericksburg, shares her how her experience as a Hodgkin lymphoma survivor has shaped her career path as an oncologist and influenced how she connects with her patients.

What was the process like to receive your Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis? Did you recognize your symptoms as being something serious?

I was a first-year medical student learning the lymphatic system of the thorax. I had to present about a patient with esophageal cancer who had a right supraclavicular lymph node (located above the clavicle). One week later – I felt one on me. Of course, since all medical students are hypochondriacs, I immediately thought I had esophageal cancer! About a month later, I ended up with a diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma, after receiving abnormal imaging, when I went home for the weekend. My dad is a physician in a small town in northern Alabama and took me to the hospital for evaluation. I didn’t have any other symptoms – just my enlarged lymph node. After evaluation, I had a mass in my chest and lymph nodes in my axillae (where the arm connects to the shoulder). Thankfully it was caught early – Stage IIA. Two hugely impactful things happened when I was diagnosed – my doctor prayed with me and then he told me I would likely need to drop out of school. His prayer patterned how I interact with patients. His prediction of me dropping out of school actually challenged me to stick with it and keep up my studies.

You were diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma while in medical school. Did your diagnosis and treatment impact your path to becoming a physician? 

I entered medical school thinking about starting a small-town family practice a la “Doc Hollywood.” Through the process of diagnosis, treatment, and meeting other patients, it was clear that I needed to pursue oncology instead. My diagnosis completely changed my trajectory and solidified a new career path. I ended up in academic oncology for many years, training fellows and giving them a survivors’ viewpoint.

My experience [with cancer] has greatly influenced my interactions with patients. I know how important these relationships are. I make sure to take the time to explain what is going on and address potential side effects. When I share my history, it gives me some credibility."

How does your experience as a cancer survivor affect the way you interact with your patients?

My experience has greatly influenced my interactions with patients. I had an amazing oncologist and nursing team. I know how important these relationships are. I make sure to take the time to explain what is going on and address potential side effects. I pray with patients regularly. I also bring up a lot of emotional topics – depression, stress, fatigue, nutrition challenges, coping with diagnosis, difficulty with transition to survivorship, and the constant anxiety regarding potential recurrence. When I share my history, it gives me some credibility. I only share when I think it will benefit the patient – either convince them they can get through something or provide some type of encouragement. I let them know that I was diagnosed with cancer for a reason – God has used my experience to impact many lives and I am thankful for that every day.


For upcoming webinars visit www.TexasOncologyFoundation.org.