The Rider

August 10, 2010

When A Cancer Doctor Becomes A Cancer Patient

Filed under: Rider Profiles, The James — The Blog @ 6:01 AM

Doreen Agnese was scared and feeling very vulnerable as she was wheeled into surgery at the Ohio State Medical Center.

“I’m used to walking in there in my scrubs, not on a stretcher,” said Doreen, who is a surgeon specializing in breast cancer and melanomas and is also a geneticist at the medical center. This time, she was on the other end of the operating table, starring up at the surgeon, William Farrar.

“I felt very vulnerable,” she said of her thyroid-cancer surgery. “I’m used to being in charge and giving the orders.”

Doreen’s surgery was in January. She’s now in remission, feeling stronger and believes the experience has made her a better doctor for her patients – and helped her realize life is precious and she needs to take better care of herself.

Which is one of the many reasons Doreen will be riding in Pelotonia this year.

“I’ve never been the most fit person,” said Doreen, who like most of the cancer doctors at Ohio State spends way too many hours on the job. “And my family has a history of heart disease and being overweight.”

She was a volunteer at Pelotonia 209 – and was so inspired she started riding in the spring with the goal of riding in Pelotonia 2010.

“I signed up for the 23-mile Pelotonia ride and at first I thought, ‘I’m so out of shape, I can’t do this.’ But as I started training, I increased my distance and the first time I rode 20 miles I thought, ‘This isn’t so bad.’”

Instead of riding 23 miles, she’ll do the 43-mile ride to Amanda.

“I love riding,” Doreen said. “You’re out in the fresh air and it clears your head. It’s therapeutic, especially after a bad day.”

For Doreen, a bad day can be really bad – and hard to get past.

“I may have to tell someone they have cancer … or one of my patients has lost their battle,” she said. “But there are also a lot of good days. I was just at the wedding of one of my patients. I’ve been taking care of her for 15 years and she’s doing great and got married. That was a very good day.”

Cycling has helped Doreen achieve more balance in her life

Doreen got the “the call” on Dec. 9.

“They told me I had thyroid cancer,” she said of the life-changing moment. A lot of things went through her mind, including all the possible outcomes, which she knew all too well as a cancer surgeon – and also the fact that she was in the right hospital.

“I was so lucky that my boss, William Farrar, is one of the best thyroid surgeons around,” Doreen said.

There’s a strong bond between a cancer patient and their surgeon, Doreen said, adding she always understood this, but can now better empathize with her patients.

Here's Doreen and her surgeon - William Farrar, who will also be riding in Pelotonia

“The surgeon takes care of you when you are completely vulnerable and they look to you for advice on everything,” she said. “Now, I want to help my patients even more. Being a survivor I now know what they’re going through.”

The tough thing for Doreen is finding the balance between taking care of her patients – and taking care of herself. Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day to do both – and her inclination has always been to put her patients first.

“When you get a cancer diagnosis, you realize this is something that could kill me and it does change you,” she said. “I have to try and take some time for myself and take better care of myself.”

In her next sentence, Doreen gets back to talking about her patients, so it seems balance is easier said than done.

But training for Pelotonia has helped point her in the right direction.

“I’m just one of the many people riding in Pelotonia who have been touched by this,” Doreen said. “I’m riding for those who can’t ride for themselves, including the people who have lost their fight. Unfortunately, there are too many of them.”

10 things about  Doreen…

Favorite ride

Along the Olentangey Trail

Dream ride

Pacific Coast Highway

Current Pelotonia bike

Elektra Ticino

Dream bike

I’m open to suggestions

Favorite movie

The Princess Bride

Favorite band/singer

The Killers

Favorite TV show


Favorite book

The Lovely Bones

Favorite athlete

Rick Nash

Favorite post-ride meal

Anything followed by Jeni’s ice cream



  1. Dr. Agnese,
    I commend you for riding and I am glad that you are doing it!!!

    Jeni’s it is when this is over!


    Comment by Janethia — August 10, 2010 @ 2:09 PM

  2. Great, great story Dr. Agnese. Bravo to you and your surgeon ! I hope I see you on the ride. Penny

    Comment by Penny — August 10, 2010 @ 8:52 PM

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