‘Be direct and honest’

Empathy tips from a cancer survivor who’s now a pediatric resident

Luke Weaver, DO, is completing his residency in the same children’s hospital where he fought two types of cancer as a teen.


At some point, most new residents come to find their hospital feels like a second home. For Luke Weaver, DO, that feeling began on the first day of his pediatrics residency—because he also received cancer treatment in the same hospital when he was a teen.

In July, Dr. Weaver started his residency at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in St. Louis, where he previously spent significant time in treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia and later for non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma. At one point during his second bout with cancer, Dr. Weaver’s prognosis was so bleak that he wrote a goodbye letter to his family and physicians, the Kansas City University magazine reported.

But Dr. Weaver battled back—both of his cancers are in remission, and he achieved his childhood dream of becoming a physician, graduating last year from the Kansas City (Missouri) University College of Osteopathic Medicine. In this edited Q&A, Dr. Weaver shares valuable tips for physicians based on his extensive experience as a patient.

When were you diagnosed with cancer?

I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when I was 15. The diagnosis felt earth-shattering—it was so strange to hear those words I didn’t think would be part of my future. I spent the next three years in treatment, which meant going to the hospital at least once a week.

My treatment was going pretty well, but I developed abdominal pain and unexplained symptoms. Eventually, I was also diagnosed with non-Hodgkin B-cell lymphoma. I spent my last three months of high school at Cardinal Glennon doing intense chemotherapy. I’ve been in remission for about eight years now.

Luke Weaver, DO, tells the story of his journey to medicine in this video from Kansas City (Missouri) news station KMBC.

Based on your experiences as a patient, what tips would you offer physicians?

It’s so important for physicians to be direct and honest, and to be compassionate without giving false hope. Also, if you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t be afraid to admit it—that honesty can help put patients at ease.

When I’m delivering bad news, I avoid making statements like, “I understand how you feel,” because it’s so hard to truly understand what someone else is going through, and as a patient, comments like that can feel a little patronizing. Instead, I use language like, “I understand your frustration.” That minor change in the phrasing can make a world of difference.

For physicians who work with children, it’s essential to recognize that young patients are just as much a part of the team as their parents and clinicians. Don’t leave them out just because they’re 7 or 8 years old—they have ears, and they have questions. You’d be surprised what kids can tell you and what they know is going on, even though you think maybe they don’t.

What has it been like training at the hospital where you were treated?

Residency can be stressful, but I have a lot of good support. My pediatric oncologists—Gordon Gale, MD, and Deepika Bhatla, MD—still practice here, and I’ve had some of my own doctors as attending physicians on rotations as well.

Every time I walk these halls or go to the cafeteria, it looks just like home to me. When I’m seeing patients in the same rooms I was treated in, it sometimes brings back memories. I’m reminded of the physicians who took care of me then—they put me at ease and treated me with respect and humility, and that’s what I strive to do every day.

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