Cancer Doctor and Survivor
Fall 2006 - Health & Medicine Magazine
By Tracey Teo, Courier & Press correspondent
Cancer diagnosis is not always a death sentence.
"How can you deal with all those dying people?"
That's a question 51-year-old oncologist Dr. Rick Ballou has been asked many times during his 11 years of treating patients at the Evansville Cancer.
Of course, the question always come from people who aren't suffering from cancer. Ballou says those "dying people" are mothers, husbands, daughters, grandfathers and favorite aunts, and he takes his job of prolonging their lives for as long as possible very seriously.
"I don't look at it (a patient) as a 'dying person,' I look at it as a person I'm going to keep alive for another year," Ballou explains.
He also points out that a cancer diagnosis is not always a death sentence.
"We cure a lot of people... in other people that we know we can't cure, our goal is to improve their quality of life for as long as we possibly can," says Ballou.
So when asked "Why oncology?" Ballou often says, "I didn't pick it; it picked me."
He says that every physician chooses his or her specialty for a reason and that reason is often largely based on personality and how well that individual can cope with losing patients.
"I have the kind of personality that death doesn't scare me. It's a natural part of life," says Ballou. "My personality is such that I treat everybody (patients) like they are my family and I do everything I can to do the best I can, but if they do poorly, I can accept that without a lot of mental anguish."
Ballou is not unaffected when patients die; he is just able to cope with it in a psychologically healthy way. He and his staff sometimes form special attachments to patients and look forward to seeing them when they come in for treatments. If those patients die, they are sorely missed.
Ballou recalls treating Joe Unfried, who was a football coach and physical education teacher at Bosse High School for 30 years. He died four years ago of colon cancer, and Ballou says he will never forget him.
"Joe was one of those people that are always happy. Even in the worst situation, he had a magnetic personality that drew you closer to him. He always made the office brighter when he was here."
Ballou says most physicians figure out early on what specialty they are cut out for and what they are not, and he knew in medical school that he would never be a cardiologist. Patients sometimes die suddenly, he says, and that would keep him awake at night second-guessing himself as a physician.
"You talk to somebody (a patient) today, and they have a heart attack (and die) tonight. You think, 'What if I would have changed the medicine today?'"
Many doctors know from childhood that they want to practice medicine, but that's not the case with Ballou His path to medical school was a circuitous one and he took a couple of detours before getting there. In the early 1980s, he was a teaching assistant at the University of Louisville and was working toward his doctorate in anatomy. He was looking forward to teaching the subject as a college professor.
But he got a phone call that changed all that. It was the assistant dean of the University of Louisville's medical school. He had taken notice of Ballou's intelligence and work ethic and asked him if he had ever considered practicing medicine.
"I went home and talked to my wife," Ballou says. "She said, 'Well, you are 30 years old and have never had a job.'" That settled it. Ballou enrolled in medical school, graduated and got a job.
Ballou says two words that best sum him up as a physician are "caring" and "diligent." He relies on both to increase the survival rate of his patients.
"We have at least twice the national average of survival with lung cancer," Ballou says. "It's not that we're better than other places, but we're more diligent."
He says many times when patients are told there is no hope and that they should look into hospice care, his team will "figure out something" to try to prolong that patient's life. "We are doing a lot of things that are cutting edge," says Ballou.
He sites Radiofrequency ablation (RFA) as an example. Tumors are injected with a hollow needle and then metal tines are deployed from inside the needle. Radio waves that "cook" the tumor are transmitted to the needle tip and through the tines. The procedure can be used for many different types of cancer, including lung cancer, and does not depend on radiation.
As an oncologist, Ballou is used to dealing with his patients' mortality, but last year, just after his 50th birthday, he was confronted with his own.
He was making his rounds at St. Mary's Hospital when he took a break to use the rest room. An alarming bright red stream of urine flowed, and it only took the doctor seconds to mentally go through a process of disease elimination and make a diagnosis. Urinary tract infection? No. Too much blood. Kidney stone? No. No back pain. Kidney cancer? Yes. That had to be the problem.
Tests confirmed his diagnosis the next day, and by the end of the week, he had surgery to remove the tumor.
"I knew people. They moved faster," he quips.
The surgery was successful, and Ballou has been cancer free for a year-and-a-half.
"It was confined to the kidney and it was probably curable, but you never know. The surgeon did a good job and got it all," Ballou says. But he adds that he won't feel entirely out of the woods until three years from the date of the surgery. "A year-and-a-half from now, I can start talking about buying that Winnebago," he jokes.
Ballou says he doesn't usually raise the subject of his own battle with cancer with his patients because "it sometimes gets in the way of things," but nonetheless, many of them are aware of his illness and find it comforting that they are being treated by a physician who is also a cancer survivor.
"A lot of people find it encouraging that I have survived and I look good, (healthy) and they think, 'maybe I could be you,'" says Ballou.
He says his personal experience with cancer has made him empathize even more with what patients must endure when getting treatment. "It changed my perspective on how much hassle people go through getting X-rays and all that kind of stuff. It changed my thinking about what I'm putting people through when I order tests."
It's important to Ballou that his patients are as comfortable as possible when receiving chemotherapy and the Evansville Cancer Center provides a "chemosuite" as that staff refer to it, completed with large recliners, TVs with individual headphones, and food and drinks.
He says patients in the chemosuite often form a bond with each other, and it's not uncommon for them to schedule their chemotherapy at a time they know a fellow cancer survivor and friend will be there. "People sit there for hours at a time, day after day, getting chemotherapy, and there are certain people that they interact with all the time. It becomes a kind of social club back there," says Ballou.
As he walks past the chemosuite, Ballou sees nurses giving backrubs and sometimes hugs to patients. He sees patients greeting friends. He sees compassion. But most importantly, he sees hope. If those people who ask "why oncology?" could see what he sees, would they still ask that question?
"I love my job," says Ballou. "I can't think of anything else I would want to do."