Oncology Fellow Advisor presents its Tribute series. In each segment, we remember a prominent thought leader who changed the face of oncology and paved the way for future legions of oncology fellows.

In this issue, we remember and honor the work of Robert Buckman, MD, PhD, renowned oncologist, writer, and media personality. Dr. Buckman died unexpectedly in his sleep aboard a plane en route from Canada to London on October 9, 2011.

Oncology Fellow Advisor invited Walter F. Baile, MD, professor, Department of Behavioral Science; director, Program for Interpersonal Communication And Relationship Enhancement (I×CARE); and professor, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas, with whom Dr. Buckman collaborated on a library of teaching videos for health professionals, to share thoughts and memories of his friend and colleague.

“Rob was an incredible person. What I remember most is that he brought a sense of humor—an appropriate sense of humor—to everything he did,” said Dr. Baile. “He had a way of engaging patients with incredible humanism and a lightheartedness that made some of the most awful situations somehow bearable for cancer patients.”

Dr. Buckman practiced medical oncology at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, Canada, and worked as a consultant for I×CARE at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. His achievements were vast and varied. A prolific writer, Dr. Buckman penned at least 14 books, many of which were literary in style and geared toward helping patients understand and survive their cancer. Magic or Medicine?, an investigation into complementary medicine, was turned into a TV series that won a Gemini, the Canadian equivalent of an Emmy.

Dr. Buckman also wrote numerous scholarly articles; in the past 15 years, much of this work focused on doctor–patient communications and breaking bad news. His undergraduate course on the latter subject received the University of Toronto Aikins Teaching Award in 1989. Dr. Buckman was named Canadian Humanist of the Year in 1994 and received the Fleming medal of the Royal Canadian Institute for the Advancement of Science in 2003.

A bibliophile, Dr. Buckman collected first-edition volumes, of which he had a treasured library. He also had a penchant for all things Italian; when he and Dr. Baile reached an impasse in the work they were doing, Dr. Buckman was given to quoting, in Italian, from Dante’s Divine Comedy, “‘in the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost,’” Dr. Baile recalled.

Had Dr. Buckman not gone into medicine, he may well have had a career as an actor; his early theatrical endeavors include working with the actor and comedian John Cleese in Great Britain. “Rob started his career as a comedian, actually, and had his own TV show in London that was actually watched by several million people.” Dr. Baile said. “He brought this ability to connect with people into his interactions with patients and their families.”

Although his approach to work and life was characteristic of one with boundless energy, Dr. Buckman’s physical health was fragile at times. At the age of 31 he was diagnosed with dermamyositis, a congenital autoimmune disease condition that nearly killed him. In recent years, he was hospitalized more than once for severe pneumonia, possibly the sequelae of a small stroke that left one of his vocal chords paralyzed.

“Sometimes he tired easily, but there was never a time when a 15-minute nap in the office wasn’t able to revive his enthusiasm,” Dr. Baile said. “He had a great passion for his work and a great confidence in his own talent without the arrogance that you sometimes see in brilliant people. In our work together, his ability to write scenarios portraying communication dilemmas and work with actors and be in these films himself was really extraordinary.”

Although Dr. Buckman was perhaps most distinguished to patients, readers, and other audiences by his communications skills and theatrical capacity, his colleagues respected him also as an outstanding oncologist.

“I think it’s easy to forget that he was a medical scholar in addition to being a compassionate doctor and a prolific writer,” Dr. Baile said. “He was a great doctor originally trained in lab science, and he got his PhD from the University of London. In recent years, he was pursuing a project where he showed that low-dose anticoagulant can cause tumor regression in some patients with advanced cancer.

This ability to be both a compassionate doctor and an accomplished researcher is part of Dr. Buckman’s legacy: One does not necessarily preclude the other. A commentary published in fall 2011 in The New York Times addressed concerns that the recent emphasis of medical schools on compassion and communication skills might diminish the importance of physician excellence in the technical aspects of medicine.1 Dr. Buckman exemplifies those 2 components of a physician’s endeavor working in tandem. “Rob was the epitome of showing that it’s really about the balance,” Dr. Baile said.

Another lesson to be learned from Dr. Buckman’s work is the recognition that although extroversion and ease in communicating come naturally to some, for others communication is a skill that requires study and practice, and that it can be learned. Hence, the library of films on which Drs. Baile and Buckman collaborated at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“He and I worked together in producing the material. Remarkably, none of this was done with a script. It was generated through role-play with actors. He had a tremendous way of taking their talent and molding it into simulated patients who demonstrated key communication challenges that oncologists and other clinicians caring for cancer patients often face,” Dr. Baile said.

The films address everything from the fundamentals of communication, including nonverbal communication, to managing highly specific difficult situations, such as informing family of a patient’s death.

“I’m so glad we did the videos together. The videos will endure because, while some of the technical aspects of things he talked about may be surpassed by new data and information, the style and the skills in communicating will always be there,” Dr. Baile said. “But the world is a sadder place, a less complete place without him.

To view the videos on which Drs. Baile and Buckman collaborated, please see below: 

On Being An Oncologist
Humor as a Coping Strategy
Nonverbal Communication—In-Depth


  1. Rosenbaum, L. (2011, November 1.) The downside of doctors who feel your pain. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/01/health/views/the-downside-of-doctors-who-feel-your-pain.html. Accessed November 21, 2011. 

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