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Nothing is lost in translation for Russian-speaking patients with urologic cancers

“Even when I was four, I wanted to be a clinician; I’d sit with my grandpa, listen to his ailments, and write prescriptions for him in Russian,” says Elena Dreyzin, PA-C., an advanced practice provider in the Fox Chase Cancer Center Department of Urology.


Elena Dreyzin, PA-C

At 16, my family emigrated from Ukraine to the US, and my medical dreams stalled. Although my family strongly emphasized education, I needed to work immediately because we came with very little.

Eventually, I graduated from Chestnut Hill College, landed a position at Merck, met my husband, and had two beautiful children. But despite my good fortune, somewhere in the back of my mind, I still wanted to become a clinician.

It wasn’t until years later that a twist of fate—or, in this case, a twist of my ankle on a family vacation—that my medical career manifested. Returning home, I tried to make an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon, but the doctor was booked for weeks. “Would you like an appointment with the physician assistant (PA)?” I wasn’t exactly sure what an assistant did, but I took the open slot because my ankle was the size of a balloon.

My chance encounter with the orthopedic PA was revelatory: he was a rigorously educated and expertly trained clinician who examined me, ordered images, made a diagnosis, conferred with the surgeon, wrote my prescriptions, and followed through on my care.

It was like a lightning bolt: This was precisely the kind of career I wanted, and I immediately enrolled in school, working tirelessly to finish my coursework and excel.

It took me three years to retake prerequisites and apply to PA school, which is highly competitive. I completed many patient care hours and underwent a lengthy application process comparable to a medical school application.

I lucked out when Fox Chase called me in for an interview. That first day, when I met Dr. Kutikov, Chair, Department of Urology, and Lisa Erickson, the division Senior Medical Secretary, I knew I had found my people: brilliant, dedicated, and with a relentless passion for putting someone’s cancer in the rearview mirror.

Comfort and confidence for patients

Beyond helping individuals work through the reality of a cancer diagnosis, for many, an added burden is that English is not their native language. Many speak Russian and Ukrainian; fortunately, I am fluent in both. In addition, for some patients with prostate, bladder, or kidney cancer, there is a stigma that comes with even talking about cancer, let alone making the necessary decisions to ensure successful outcomes. 

I walk patients and their loved ones through the various steps and stages of cancer treatment in their native tongue, explaining treatment benefits and risks and how to handle side effects—building their courage to go through this in a language they can understand.

As part of Dr. Kutikov’s team and as his assistant, I work as a clinician and a translator to honor a patient’s unique cultural norms—gaining trust, building relationships, and creating a space where individuals with a cancer diagnosis can thrive.

I tell Dr. Kutikov, “I will support you until we retire.”