When the Doctor Becomes the Patient

March 12, 2010

Michelle Palazzo, MD, was a resident physician and only 34 years old when she received a diagnosis of breast cancer. The journey she began that day changed her life and her career focus forever. She believes it also enhanced her development as a skilled and compassionate surgeon. Here, she shares her remarkable story.

The Diagnosis

“In 2003, I was diagnosed with a form of breast cancer called Ductal Carcinoma In Situ, or DCIS,” she explained. “Even though as a physician, I knew my options, when faced with the prospect of being on the other side of the scalpel, I had to hear them from someone else. I was given two treatment options: lumpectomy and radiation, or mastectomy. I chose to have a mastectomy and immediate reconstruction.”

“I was living in St. Louis at the time,” said Dr. Palazzo. I was contacted by a local YSC [Young Survivors Coalition] member who had also been through a mastectomy for DCIS. Patty and I became very close almost instantly. I spent a lot of time learning from her experience and finding comfort in being with someone who understood what I was going through.” She added, “Prior to all of this, I led a fairly stressful life with little time for myself. I worked 80-plus hours a week in a male-dominated field wearing unisex uniforms called scrubs. I had lost touch with my femininity, but found it again after losing part of it.”

Growing in Skills and Compassion

“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I became the patient I was training to treat. And while my education had prepared me for the physical effects of a mastectomy, the emotional effects of losing a breast took me by surprise. Each day now when I see that scar, instead of being sad at what I lost, I smile and know what I have gained because of my experience.”

Michelle Palazzo, MD
Board Certified Plastic and
Reconstructive Surgeon
Kleinert Kutz and Associates

It wasn’t long before Dr. Palazzo decided to pursue additional training in breast reconstruction with one of the nation’s most respected breast plastic surgeons, Dr. Scott Spear of Georgetown University. So, after completing her residency at Saint Louis University, she moved to Washington D.C. for a fellowship in reconstructive and aesthetic surgery of the breast. As she explained, “I learned so much about the details of making a breast beautiful.

In addition to reconstruction, I gained experience in improving symmetry by operating on the other breast to make it larger, smaller or perkier. Also, since many women decided to do something fun for themselves during their final stage of reconstruction, such as a liposuction, eye lift or tummy tuck, I got a great deal of experience in cosmetic surgery as well.”

The breast fellowship was technically challenging, and Dr. Palazzo grew tremendously as a surgeon that year. “But I also grew as a physician,” she said, “with great compassion and empathy for those women who were about to embark on part of a path I had recently taken. I believe they took comfort in knowing that I understood the emotions they were going through.”

From Georgetown University to Kleinert Kutz

My friendship with Patty led me to meet the man who eventually became my husband and to this city that I now call home. I came to Louisville for additional training in hand and microsurgery with Kleinert Kutz and Associates and am now honored to be part of this internationally respected group.

I love my job and the people in my life. Each day now when I see that scar on my left breast, instead of being sad at what I lost, I smile and know what joy I have gained because of my experience with DCIS. While I enjoy the intricacies and challenges of hand and cosmetic surgery, it is breast surgery that is my passion.”

According to the American Cancer Society, about 60,000 cases of DCIS are diagnosed in the United States each year, accounting for about 1 out of every 5 new breast cancer cases.

actionFor more information about breast reconstruction options, contact the Kleinert Kutz Plastic Surgery office at 812-981-4724.