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Family past inspires doctor to work for patients' futures


Dr. William Breitbart


By Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

What motivates Dr. William Breitbart to work with pancreatic cancer patients in an effort to squeeze a few more meaningful months into their lives? The short answer is that Breitbart is the child of Holocaust survivors.

“My mother and father were about 14 and 17, respectively when World War II broke out in eastern Poland,” said Breitbart, chairman of psychiatric oncology and chief of psychiatry service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “My mother hid with her parents in a hole under a stove in a Catholic woman’s barn. My father was a partisan fighter living in the woods with 150 other people, fighting to stay alive. He broke into the farmhouse one day and came upon my mother and her parents, whom he knew because they came from the same small town. He told them it was too dangerous to remain on the farm and they would have to go into the woods with him.

Breitbart’s grandparents were too frightened to leave, but they let their daughter go. They lived in the woods, hiding and fighting Nazis throughout the duration of the war.

When the war ended, they returned to the farmhouse, to discover that his mother’s parents had miraculously survived. They crossed the border into Germany and spent the next five years in a displacement camp before being allowed to emigrate to New York City.

“I was born a few years later and grew up in a home where the Holocaust was a permanent part of my life,” Breitbart said. “It did not just live in one room of our home, but in every room on every floor, every wall, every picture and in all of the religious artifacts my parents were able to preserve from destruction. I grew up with an awareness of suffering and death, of loss and the fragility of life; the fear of losing, at any moment, everything one possesses, including life.”

That sense of time and place had a profound effect on Breitbart.

“I was a 10-year-old witness,” he said. “Either verbally or non-verbally, I got the message from my family that I was going to have to do something of such significance and impact in the world — particularly in the arena of suffering and confronting mortality — that it would justify my parents’ survival. You see, every morning, my parents would ask themselves, ‘Why am I here and others are not?’” The answer was to be, ‘So there could be a Bill Breitbart in the world.’”

The burden Breitbart shared with a lot of young people in his community of Holocaust survivors could have crushed him, as it did many of his friends.

“For me it was an inspiration,” he said. “That’s how I ended up at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City, where patients are in hospital rooms wearing striped pajamas and confronting death. I needed to place myself in an environment where I could just learn, understand and try to ease the suffering or help people live in that space between now and death, between this moment and death.”

Breitbart said it was not until he had been doing his work for 20 years that he realized the connection between his family history and his career choice.

“It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that my motivation and rationale became clear to me,” he said.

The knowledge of a short time period between diagnosis and death severely demoralizes many patients and leads to a profound sense of loss of meaning to their lives, Breitbart said. The main job for patients with pancreatic cancer is to continue to live meaningfully until that moment of death, he said.

“It’s not a matter of how to accept dying quickly, but how to find the courage to live your life, love those you love and care about the things you care about; to continue to be connected and involved in your community while you can,” he said.

Breitbart sees his work as anything but a lost cause.

“It’s extremely rewarding to be able to help someone live in the face of death,” he said. “It’s extraordinarily rewarding to help someone’s family through an experience we all must go through in a way that provides a person with some sense of peace and equanimity while going through the experience.”

Sloan Kettering has a clinical fellowship training program in psychooncology of which Breitbart was a product 30 years ago, he said. Each year, seven doctors emnerge from the training to attempt what he has been practicing for three decades now.

About 10 years ago, Breitbart developed a psychotherapy-based counseling intervention, called “meaning-centered psychotherapy,” based in part on the work of psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. Both the individual and group formats of the psychotherapy method have been shown to be effective at producing more hopeful and less anxious patients with lowered desire to hasten their deaths while preserving their sense of meaning in what remains of their lives, he said. So far, nearly 300 U.S. and international clinicians have received the training, with an expectation of training 500 within a few years.

The meaning-centered therapy method has been adapted for cancer survivors, parents who have lost children to cancer, caregivers, adolescents and young adults with cancer and now is being translated for use in China and other countries.