For women on the run
Asbury Park Press  


Father's illness inspired radiologist's career choice
Published in the Asbury Park Press 11/26/03

DARYL STONE/Staff Photographer

Dr. Carol L. Kornmehl, Morganville, an attending radiation oncologist at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, is the author of "The Best News About Radiation Therapy: How to Cope and Survive."

Staff Writer

Carol L. Kornmehl always knew she wanted to be a doctor.

Her father, Harold Lipshitz, encouraged her to learn everything she could about his career -- pharmacy.

"By the time I was 6, I knew the name of every antibiotic. I was a real strange kid in that sense. But I was very influenced by my father," said Kornmehl, 44, of Morganville.

Kornmehl followed through on that early goal. After college, she went to medical school. Then, Kornmehl's dad -- her hero, as she called him, became ill. The diagnosis: acute leukemia. The diagnosis changed everything.

"Watching his pain and suffering tore at my heart. It made me decide to be a leader in the war against cancer," Kornmehl said.

Today, Kornmehl is an attending radiation oncologist at Valley Hospital in Ridgewood. And as an extension of her work as an oncologist, Kornmehl recently published a book called "The Best News About Radiation Therapy: How to Cope and Survive" (Academic Radiation Oncology Press, $14.95; visit online at

"People have this horrible image of radiation therapy. I think the average person thinks radiation therapy causes hair loss, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, burns, and all kinds of horrible things. But that's the myth," Kornmehl said.

"The fact is that most of the time, radiation therapy is very easy, painless treatments."

As an oncologist, Kornmehl consults with patients and their referring physicians to come up with specific treatment plans, prescribing everything from the number of treatments, to the amount of radiation per treatment, to the devices to be used to shape the radiation beam.

"We can't cure everybody, but we can help almost everybody and we can cure a good number," Kornmehl said. "I would say about half of my patients are treated with curative intent.

"Radiation is a local treatment like surgery, so it only affects the body part of which it's being applied. If we're treating a person whose cancer has not spread, we can prevent it from spreading anywhere else. If it's metastasized, we can impact on it in the area we're treating."

Although she's been an oncologist for 15 years, Kornmehl said she had never thought about writing a book until five years ago when she noticed she was hearing some of the same fears and misconceptions from her patients and their families.

"These worries were paralyzing people needlessly and I finally decided there was no resource out there to debunk the myths and enlighten people from a humanistic standpoint about the realities of radiation therapy," she said. "I felt it was an ethical obligation to write such a book. There were a few books out but I don't think many of them delved into the emotional aspects of treatment."

Kornmehl said her experience with her father helped her be more aware of what patients and their families were going through.

"Most of the books out there are either not current or not focused on the emotional or they aren't written for the average person to read," she said. "My thought is you need to treat the person not just the disease."

Rewards in her line of work sometimes come in measurements most people might not consider success.

"I can't cure everybody. But patients who are in pain or bleeding or who have nasty symptoms from cancer are very grateful and their quality of life can sometimes be restored somewhat," she said. "And the patients who are cured, you can actually see the cancers shrinking down. We see the lumps disappearing in front of our eyes and that is a wonderful, spiritual feeling."

Kornmehl says the gratifying nature of her work far outweighs the obviously depressing aspects.

"It's wonderful to be able to help so many people and help improve their quality of life," she said. "For some people, we've given them a second chance so they can live their life over again."

Kornmehl said her biggest regret is that her father didn't live to see her current success as an oncologist. Although his cancer went into remission for about four years, Kornmehl's father suffered a relapse just after Kornmehl passed her board exams and never recovered. He died just as Kornmehl was beginning to establish herself as an oncologist.

"The fact that he never saw my three children tears at my heart and I'm sad he didn't see my current success," she said. "I feel what happened to my father was my inspiration for what I'm doing now.

"The fuel for my fire today comes from the grief I feel about what happened to my father."