It’s strange to me that, after being a hematologist and oncologist for more than 3 decades, somebody has finally asked me why I chose this line of work. Frankly, that’s not the right question that should have been asked of me. If the truth be told, it was this line of work that chose me. Regarding my deepest and sincerest thoughts about this matter, it would not surprise me if some readers might actually find that what I’ve written here to be trite or perhaps even somewhat sanctimonious when I proclaim that I truly believe that the field of cancer medicine was a calling to me. In fact, I honestly believe that it was a divine calling.
Oncology is a difficult line of work, and medical oncologists actually have a lower projected life expectancy when compared to the life span of other physicians, or even the general population at large (according to Dr. Liang-Hai Sie, as published in the British Medical Journal). As one might surmise, the field of medical oncology is extraordinarily challenging from all aspects of the human experience. A physician in this particular subspecialty must possess not only a strong fund of knowledge, but must also possess a compelling internal personal drive to stay current with the medical literature in a rapidly changing and evolving field of medicine. As a case in point, a recently established medication or treatment protocol may very well be obsolete the following year!
Long hours are expected, and therefore it’s also a physically challenging line of work. Perhaps a confession is in order that the subspecialty of medical oncology is also a spiritually taxing endeavor. While it is gratifying to see patients conquer cancer from time to time and enjoy long-term survivorship, obviously there are frequent and tragic exceptions in this line of work. Sometimes it’s difficult to remain grounded when patients don’t respond to therapy and suffer a premature demise as a consequence to their underlying malignancy.
When I was younger man in this line of work, I would often beat myself up with recriminating thoughts that “something more” could have been done when a patient died from cancer complications. As wisdom is a product of life experiences which include success and failure, I hope that I now have the wisdom to keep an “even keel” after more than three decades in this line of work. I now look at my role now as a glorified “traffic cop,” trying to steer cancer patients in the right direction. I have come to the conclusion that if a patient gets well from their underlying cancer, then that’s a consequence to the patient’s own relationship to God. The first time that I ever claim that I cured somebody will be the first time that I get struck by lightning!
My own mother was a nurse in the United States Army during World War II. Her claim to fame was that she was the scrub nurse for Dr. Michael E. DeBakey when he performed his very first open heart surgeries at the Texas Medical Center decades ago. After I completed my postgraduate internal medicine training at the University of New Mexico Hospital in 1985, I remember telling my mother that I planned to pursue a career in hematology and oncology. She told me I was making a mistake, as I was foolishly jumping into a career with heart ache and disappointment. Perhaps she was right, but maybe, just maybe, somewhere along the way I made a difference…