Eventually, my daughter will stop seeing her oncologist, and while I appreciate all that he has done, I hope that they part ways forever.
I often think of why people will choose a particular profession. For some, it’s only ever just a job, something they do to put food on the table and a roof over their heads and take the occasional vacation.
But for others, I think their career must fall under the category of a calling, and I truly believe this is the case for most people who work in oncology.
When I first encountered a member of the team who was going to be treating my daughter’s breast cancer, I was on speaker phone from a country away as she met with her medical oncologist for the first time. He was very matter of fact, talking to her about what her treatment plan would look like, how many times she’d be sitting in the chair and some of the potential side effects, and how the treatment team would help to manage them.
The doctor spoke to her about financial assistance that could be available and how he would refer her to that team. Since she was undergoing an aggressive treatment plan, he advised her to take as much time off from work as possible, and said that he would be happy to write letters of support if she needed them.
This was a very emotional time for my daughter, and I appreciated his forthright presentation of the facts because it helped us so much to stay as logical as possible when the world was crashing down around us.
When I walked with my child into the oncology ward for the first time, the voices inside my head were screaming so loudly saying “this can't be happening!” that I was surprised no one else could hear them. I had to work very hard to keep my emotions at bay as we sat in the waiting room. When my daughter’s name was called to go in for the pre-treatment meeting with the oncologist, there was a lump in my throat, and I could hear my heart beating in my ears.
This man was meeting my daughter on one of the worst days of her life and I wondered whether his “now you’re in treatment” demeanor would be any different from his “this is what we’re going to do” presence had been.
The difference was there, but it was very subtle. He was still matter of fact and full of information, but there was a compassion radiating from his being as he spoke to my child about what was to come that changed the atmosphere from clinical to human. The waiting room was full, so I knew that his schedule was as well, but I never felt like we were an appointment time that had to be held to. There were so many fears, so much anguish, and his approach quieted the voices just enough that I was able to get up and walk into the room with her when I wasn’t sure going in if my feet would carry me.
There were a few times I saw more emotion in his attitude. Once was when he checked in with my daughter about the neuropathy that so often comes with her treatment, and he seemed excited that she had made it as far as she had without it getting unmanageable because that meant he wouldn’t have to ease back on treatment. Another was when he flashed a bit of anger when he thought that her choice to take all the time off, he had recommended seemed to be being challenged and he was ready to go to bat for her. And the last time was right before her last treatment when he spoke to her about survivorship and how he would continue to be available to her if things got rough.
While she continues to see him as part of a regular check-in schedule with the three pillars of her treatment team, at some point that is going to stop, and he is going to say goodbye. I’ve seen many comments from patients with cancer struggling with the end of that relationship, and I think I get it. The connection becomes so intimate when your life is at stake. When all your hope for the future is in someone else’s hands, it is very hard to have those hands let go.
When some people say goodbye, they want it to mean “until we meet again.” But in this case, both sides of the relationship want the parting to be forever. I often wonder if she will be forgotten, if time will make her fade into the past for him. I don’t quite know how else I would manage if I were in his shoes, when my job meant that day after day was full of meeting people who looked at me with such hope and I knew that for some it would not be enough.
I have an idea of what it would be like for me, but I can’t imagine what it would be like for him to see her name on his schedule again. I hope I never have to find out.
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