INTERVIEW – Michelle Symes: “The Day I Found Out I Had Cancer”

See you at the Paris offices in early autumn. Here we are not meeting with the health information office and not with Dr. Symes – he also hung up his blouse a year ago – but a man ready to tell his moments of truth on the sidelines of promotion Nothing is impossible (ed. Stock): ” I exposed myself in this book. I hesitated a lot before starting, I thought it was the height of megalomania. What do you think? “, he opens us in the preamble. So, doctor or not doctor?

GALA: The title of your book, Nothing is impossible, sounds like a double negative. Is this a sign that you had a hard time letting go of yourself?
MICHAEL SIMES
: Ah, I did not expect such a question! (Smiles.) First, this is a reference to Pythagoras: “Nothing is impossible, not even incredible. There’s a sense of hardship in that title that resonates with what I say in my book: my failing undergrad, the fact that I have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, editor’s note) and HP (high potentials, editor’s note)… I think it fits my experience well.

GALA: And among these tests there are this kidney cancer, discovered by accident after a skiing accident fourteen years ago, for which you were immediately operated on. Why did you hide it until now?
SM
: First, I wasn’t ready. When I found out, I didn’t tell anyone about it. Not even parents or children. I didn’t want to worry them: I knew there were deadlines. For five years, we do not know whether we will have metastases or relapse. My doctor kept me from being too optimistic. Afterwards, I had to wait to digest it myself. So that I was convinced that I would recover. Finally, if I were to go public with my cancer, it is very likely that I would be asked to testify. But I refused. I was still consulting in a specialty in which I had self-reported cancer, and I didn’t want to have patients in front of me saying, “You know what this is, doctor! »

“I only told a few people about it. Not even parents or children. I didn’t want to worry them…”

GAL: Why?
SM
: The doctor must keep a certain distance. It is so. But I can tell you that I sometimes had tears in my eyes when announcing this diagnosis to a patient. Which has never happened to me before.

GALA: When you were diagnosed with kidney cancer, it was a tumor measuring 3.5 centimeters. But we know that there are metastases at 4 centimeters and the chances of getting out of it are much worse. It makes your head spin when they tell you, doesn’t it?
SM
: An angel watches over me.

GALA: Turning to the doctor, you write: “I cry like a baby, I drool when I see the image of the clip of happiness flowing everywhere. “The same doctor cry in front of a crab…
SM
: Yes, that day the doctor I was became a vulnerable, normal person, unable to take a step back, subject to the same kind of shock that all patients who are told they have cancer describe. I saw my life scrolling by fast. I took my coat off, I didn’t even hear the doctor talking to me.

GALA: Who were you thinking about then?
SM
: To my children. To my children… (Michel Symes’ voice chokes. Red eyes. He questions us for a moment). sorry

GALA: I’m sure that conveying these emotions helps people…
SM
: Indeed, everyone who was there will understand.

GALA: Let’s talk about your wife, Natalie, who accompanied you “with gentleness and sensitivity”, write to you. Did you let her know at the time?
SM
: No, I didn’t talk to him about it right away. I was in this state… At the bottom of the pit. But I acted as if nothing had happened. I was waiting for the surgeon. I didn’t want to worry her. Even today, when I get tested, I only talk to him about it when I have the results. I am like that. I am ashamed. When things are not good, I don’t show it. I wait for it to pass, I isolate myself, I work on myself. I am not very demonstrative in difficult times. Much more when things are going well.

GALA: Is this your shell?
SM
: My shell is humor. To make fun of everything. In fact, I think the more we talk about what upsets you, the more it makes you unhappy. I’ll let you in on a secret: my son Romain, with whom I had a famous skiing accident, was 11 at the time, and I waited until he was 18 to tell him I had cancer. And to Elias, my youngest, I spoke to him about this only two weeks ago, before the book came out.

GALA: And…?
SM
: He is not worried because he knows that I have recovered.

GALA: Speaking of children, we found out from reading you that you were a very shy boy…
MC
. : Yes, with girls, but not in lessons. I have always lacked self-confidence. Which was partially offset by popularity, my public profession…

GALA: Because you still suffer from impostor syndrome…
SM
: Yes, he will never let me go. I may be the favorite doctor of the French or the number 1 in health information, I always wonder why… This syndrome is very pronounced in ADHD and HP. I combine both. And I discovered that last year. This partly explains it… Over time, with age, it also calms down, I perceive many perspectives: my career is closer to the finish than to the start. I managed to calm down and tell myself that there are more important things in life. As we age, we go back to the basics.

GALA: Did hanging up your blouse last year help you?
SM
: Yes, indeed! Because when you suffer from this syndrome, you also say to yourself, “Am I competent enough for my patients? But the doctor has no right to say “I don’t know”.

GALA: For now, during the first waves of Covid-19we’d rather hear that doubt than witness the cacophony of doctors’ diagnoses on TV – including you.
SM
: Yes, after thirty years of health information, I forgot to say “I don’t know”. This is my mistake. I should have voiced my doubts a lot more and I really regret it. This is trauma. Really. I failed my informational mission. People trusted me, and I couldn’t tell them, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you much because I don’t have enough material. »

GALA: At the beginning of the pandemic, you rather gave the impression that it was not very serious to wear masks…
SM
: Yes, and I regret that I was not more controversial in the person of the Minister of Health, expert speakers… I believed them.

GALA: Social networks turned against you: did it slow down your career a bit?
SM
: It confused me, yes. They made me believe that I was talking about “gripet”, I grabbed my head. The anti-vaxxers kept coming at me, but eventually I took a step back from it all. And after a qualitative study by France Télévisions, I was able to see that ninety-five percent of the viewers left their trust in me. We have been polluted by social media.

GALA: During this time, other doctors took your place…
SM
: Indeed, and they greatly undermined scientific credibility.

GALA: If we invited you today to talk about the upcoming eighth wave?
SM
: I would say, “I don’t know. I’ve learned to say it, trust me.

This interview can be found in Gala N°1530, available this Thursday, October 6.

Photo: CEDRIC PERRIN / BESTIMAGE

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