Q+A with Michael Lill, MD
Michael Lill, MD, leads Cedars-Sinai’s Blood and Marrow Transplant Program. Today, blood and marrow transplant is one of the most aggressive procedures used in the battle against cancer. This technique seeks to replace cancerous cells with transplanted healthy blood, bone marrow, or stem cells. Dr. Lill is himself a cancer survivor. While growing up in Perth, Australia, he got his kicks playing “Australian rules” football, but he now focuses his energy on staying fit with martial arts.
Q. How does your personal experience with cancer influence your work?
A. I had appendix cancer and I think my experience really helps me understand the uncertainty that all of my patients deal with. I have firsthand knowledge of how difficult it is to face the unknowns that surround treatment options and long-term outcomes.
Q. What kind of martial art are you studying?
A. It’s Jeet Kun Do [which literally means “Way of the Intercepting Fist”], a martial arts fighting system that the late actor Bruce Lee developed and used in his films. My dojo combines a free-form mix of martial arts—primarily JKD, which is derived from Kung Fu in style, but also Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Thai kickboxing (Muay Thai), and French kickboxing (Savate).
Q. Are you planning to pick a fight with someone?
A. No! (laughs). I haven’t been in a fight since I played football in Australia, but I very much enjoy the physical aspects of life. When you do martial arts, there is a Zen component to the experience. You totally focus on what you’re doing instead of thinking about life-and-death issues or work-related things.
Martial arts are a major source of stress relief for me. I work in a high mortality area and am very often delivering bad news to a patient. It helps to have an outlet that engages all of your mental and physical energies. I could live a week off the endorphins generated in one fighting bout.
Q. You are also doing something very unusual as a caregiver: performing blood-free transplants for Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose religion forbids any medical treatment that uses blood or blood products.
A. Many of my colleagues think I’m slightly crazy to be doing this, and they’re more than happy to refer their Jehovah’s Witness patients to me. We respect their beliefs, and we minimize the wastage of blood through extraneous blood tests. We should probably apply these principles more widely in the health profession.
Q. What moved you to do this for your patients?
A. In my capacity as a healer, I am not a technician. We’re supposed to be treating the whole human being. And that involves an understanding of their spiritual side as well as the mechanical, technical aspects of deciding what dose of chemotherapy to give.