After Annie Abbruzzese was diagnosed with lymphoma, Ephraim Hochberg, MD, and a Mass General Cancer Center team helped her navigate treatment in a way that worked for her.

In 2014, Annie Abbruzzese had just come off an exceptionally busy summer, juggling multiple productions for her marketing and event-productions company. She was unusually tired, had a strange swelling in her neck, and felt like she’d caught a bad cold. At the end of one work week, she got checked out at Massachusetts General Hospital—a place she’d always felt lucky to have just down the street. After a whirlwind of blood work and biopsies, she got a diagnosis of lymphoma the following Monday.

Ephraim Hochberg, MD
Ephraim Hochberg, MD

Professional Approach to Personal Crisis

“For my job, I’m used to having to react quickly, so I went right into production mode,” recalls Ms. Abbruzzese. “I had two choices: Be really nervous or be curious,” she adds. “I decided to go into this with a positive attitude and that I was going to learn from it.”

She broke her new health circumstances down into specific questions that needed answers, just as she would do professionally for a new event. One big question involved choosing the doctor to treat her. “I wanted to know who I would feel comfortable talking to if I needed someone to give me confidence when I felt lousy,” she says. “Who could I call at 4 a.m.?”

She quickly scheduled two interviews, one with an oncologist with another Boston hospital and the other with Ephraim Hochberg, MD, a lymphoma specialist at the Mass General Cancer Center.

During their 90-minute conversation, Dr. Hochberg answered all of her questions, including a powerful one: Do you like your job? “I love my job,” she remembers Dr. Hochberg saying. “I get to help people navigate unsettling situations at a difficult time in their lives, give them as much hope and help as I can and make their outcome as successful as possible.”

“Dr. Hochberg respectfully and appropriately minimized my fear and maximized my hope.”

It was the right answer. “It’s not often you leave a doctor’s office with a smile on your face when you’ve just been diagnosed with lymphoma,” Ms. Abbruzzese jokes. “Dr. Hochberg respectfully and appropriately minimized my fear and maximized my hope.”

An Olympic Effort

Right before she started treatment, Ms. Abbruzzese was invited to join a six-week effort to produce the final presentation pitching Boston as the 2024 Olympic host. She was elated the first meeting was scheduled while she was still feeling well but worried about what might happen if, amid the chemotherapy, she got weaker.

Dr. Hochberg understood this project was close to his patient’s heart and, as much as possible, he arranged her treatment around the presentation’s timeline. A memorable moment in Ms. Abbruzzese’s treatment was when he opened a calendar and asked her, “What do you have going on?” and she told him about her brother’s wedding and the Olympic pitch. “I remember he said so casually, “OK, let’s make sure you are at those,’” Ms. Abbruzzese says. He told her she could be a very modern example of how cancer doesn’t have to rule your life. “His ease and confidence let me know that it was all possible—personally and professionally—and that cancer doesn’t have to change you.”

“We have to do everything we can to make sure patients’ therapy is handled diligently and humanely, so that the care goes as well—and as seamlessly—as possible.”

“I grabbed onto that,” Ms. Abbruzzese says. “We both wanted to respect what I was going through, but didn’t want to give cancer any more attention than it deserved.”

A Winning Move

Today, Ms. Abbruzzese is cancer-free and feeling great. She knows that not everyone’s prognosis allows them to be so flexible with treatment, and she counts herself as lucky.

“What was important,” she says, “was how Dr. Hochberg and my Mass General team helped me navigate treatment in a way that worked for me. Since there was such trust built, I could follow his lead. Because he didn’t make my cancer or treatment feel like a big deal, I could take the same approach.”

Dr. Hochberg takes inspiration from his relationship with Ms. Abbruzzese, too. “She had this ability to integrate cancer treatment into her life in a very striking, functional way that allowed her to take control of the disease rather than let it control her,” he says. “We have to do everything we can to make sure patients’ therapy is handled diligently and humanely, so that the care goes as well—and as seamlessly—as possible.”

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