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Stanford Report, August 20, 2003

Social worker, magazine founder to retire in August Upon leaving Stanford, Fobair plans to stay active in the field


When Patricia Fobair found herself overworked in 1982, she asked a co-worker how she might get help. His answer: "Raise some money."

Fobair, a clinical social worker in the Department of Radiation Oncology, was an unlikely recipient of grants, but with her workload as motivation, she wrote a successful proposal with a co-worker at UC-Berkeley and hired her assistant Susan Weisberg with the proceeds. Since then, she and Weisberg have been continuously funded through grants that have partially supported their salaries.

Patricia Fobair (center) has been an advocate for cancer patients for decades. She will retire from Stanford at the end of the month. Shown with her are emeritus professor Saul Rosenberg and professor Richard Hoppe (right). Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Fobair

"I’d been here long enough to know that if you have an idea and can fund it, you can do it," Fobair said.

For her initial grant, Fobair studied problems faced by Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients who had been treated as part of the groundbreaking research by Henry Kaplan, MD. Kaplan, then a professor of radiation oncology and the director of cancer biology, had been the first to use a linear accelerator to deliver radiation treatment to Hodgkin’s patients.

From this work, Fobair, Richard Hoppe, MD, the Henry S. Kaplan-Harry Lebeson Professor of Cancer Biology, and Fobair’s Berkeley colleague wrote a paper showing what doctors, patients and families know to be true — people whose cancer has been successfully treated still face energy loss, problems functioning and depression. This paper was among the first to show the emotional side of cancer treatment and is one of the most referenced papers of its kind in the field.

Not only did Fobair’s ongoing research into the needs and experiences of cancer patients keep her funded, it helped her create programs at Stanford that would most benefit those patients. She created an art-therapy program and support groups meeting weekly or monthly to help patients move on with their lives. "There was a pool of people who had never worked through their distress," Fobair said.

In 1989 she began working with David Spiegel, MD, the Jack, Samuel and Lulu Willson Professor in medicine, who had found that people with breast cancer who participated in group therapy lived on average 18 months longer than those who dealt with cancer-related issues on their own. When Spiegel received funding for a follow-up study, he asked Fobair to participate as group leader.

One of these groups led to what may be the most visible result of Fobair’s work at Stanford — a quarterly magazine by and for cancer patients called Surviving.

The magazine came about during a group therapy meeting in 1983 with a guest speaker who commended the wealth of stories coming from that group. When he suggested they publish their stories, Fobair remembers thinking it was a good idea, though a lot of work.

Fobair put out the first issue that year. The publication quickly went from a few Xeroxed pages to a glossy magazine with an international distribution. "We got stories from all over the country," she said.

The magazine, edited by Fobair with help from Weisberg, members of the department of radiology oncology and volunteers, includes essay on coping with cancer diagnosis, treatment, and changes in relationships with family, friends and doctors. It also features poems and other articles.

The magazine just celebrated a bittersweet 20-year anniversary, which marks the end of its life in print. Lack of donations is forcing the group to publish exclusively online.

The demise of the print edition of Surviving coincides with changes in Fobair’s life. She will retire from her position at the end of August, though she will work part time in the cancer supportive care program she helped create.

"I see myself continuing to pass on wisdom," Fobair said. "I’ll also take 20 years of Surviving and write about that."

Fobair intends to publish a book of stories written by participants in her breast cancer support groups and continue to provide group and private therapy for cancer patients.

Magazine marks 20th anniversary (7/9/03)

Breast cancer survivors
launch book project