Don't Let a Good Doctor Go: My Pediatrician Helped Guide Me Through Cancer

I sent all my cancer scans to my pediatrician, who combined the power of science with the power of belief and helped me through the difficult time.

Never let a good doctor go.

My mother has a story of how she called the pediatrician’s office when I was a few months old, concerned about my having a cough. A new on-call physician told her: Bring the baby to the phone. She laughs when recalling this, not understanding at the time he could likely diagnose me just by hearing my cough and wasn’t it a crazy doctor who would question infants on the phone.

Outside the office, my parents became good friends with this doctor and his wife. I blended in easily with their six children to become seventh in the rolodex of “possibly correct names that might be shouted out around the house.”

I was at Thanksgiving dinners, but also a patient sitting in a waiting room of screaming toddlers for my college physical, or at times interrogating him about my newest hypochondriacal worry.

With the utmost professionalism, he’d look and listen, and say, “If it were something, it’d be something. That’s nothing.”

Until it wasn’t. After my shocking lung cancer diagnosis, I emailed my pediatrician almost immediately. I was lost, and my gut reaction was that he would know what to do.

The importance of my pediatrician to my story’s happy ending is enormous, but not only for medical reasons. I diligently sent him every lab, every scan, every set of doctor's notes. He would write back, fueled with decades of knowledge, kindness and patience. 

My pediatrician had always told me that one big responsibility of being a doctor is putting the patient at ease, which in his case meant decades of soothing both children and anxious parents.

Early on, as we corresponded, he was light and encouraging — puns and dad jokes and silly pictures, all things to make me smile. But always with the underlying sentiment: GO, me!

In actuality I was dying quickly. He knew it, and I didn’t. But of all the doctors I had, he never told me. Later, I think the others felt that it was their duty to assure me I was dying, because I still thought I would live. A constant during my entire illness was that the more I insisted I would beat this, the more the doctors needed to tell me. “No. No, you most certainly will not. Trust us.” 

The more adamant I was, the more I was almost taunted — You WILL die. Competitive and mischievous by nature, I treated this like a dare. I can never resist a dare.

I’d email my pediatrician late-night fears that I didn’t want to burden my family with, nestled in reports of how much I ate for breakfast. He would make house calls, bringing bags of chocolate, much to the chagrin of my sugar-conscious husband.

“One candy bar after each meal. Doctor’s orders.” His estimation was that my weight loss was my most pressing issue — that, and my happiness!

My pediatrician taught me to read my labs. He explained what those variables that make up our blood cells meant, until one day they became an intricate dance I could follow instead of a list I would fear. A trained eye can see the patterns, knowing what to look for. A trained doctor saw that I had intense anxiety about not understanding what was going on inside my own body. So he healed that by teaching.

In cancer, there are very few physical band-aids people can provide. But the capacity for mental and emotional bandaging is limitless and is an underutilized aspect of medicine. Certainly, what he lacked in oncology training hardly mattered in comparison to his intrinsic understanding of how to be a doctor. Doctors heal.

My pediatrician understood my need to know what was going on, and that I wanted to know it all. He would unscramble the word soup of medicine, patiently walking me through the mysterious, terrifying words until I had no more questions. Indeed, the strange prose of radiology reports can overwhelm and induce panic with a blatant battery of terms, seemingly impossible to understand.

But he’d do diagrams and for-instances and stories until I got it. And I did get it, and the relief was indescribable. My pediatrician understood that simply telling me (as the others did) to “not worry about it” was never going to happen.

All the while, he had to research what wasgoing on. What is this immunotherapy, Keytruda? And how much healthier might she actually become? One would have had to see me go from ECOG 4 (meaning that my functioning was severely limited) at 60 pounds to ECOG 0 (with no impacts to functioning) at 100 pounds in two months to believe it.

In late August, I had turned my back on my death sentence. In early October, I began to walk away from it, and by December I broke into a full run when I got a miraculous CT scan. My pediatrician got to witness all this firsthand, lab by lab and day by day as I recovered.

I have to think: What an amazing advance in medicine since our first phone conversation in 1972!

About two months after that amazing first scan, COVID-19 would arrive. I wouldn’t physically see my oncologist for five months, and I’d wait a brutal six months for my second scan. But every three weeks, I showed up for my Keytruda infusion.

I’d keep sending my labs to my pediatrician, sometimes filled with panic. He would break it down, calming me, reassuring me. These were nervous times for everyone, but he never stopped answering my questions.

After my oncologist moved in July 2020, she was replaced by a new doctor with poor communication skills and a nonexistent bedside manner, and I cancelled most of my appointments with her. For the next two years I acted as my own oncologist, scheduling my own labs, scansand even deciding to stop Keytruda after my 18th infusion.

I had been studying the facts, making educated decisions and as reckless as it may have seemed, no one was taking better care of me, than me. Of course, through it all, I had brought everything immediately to my pediatrician for reassurance.

I hope I was able, in some way, to repay him with the happy ending to my cancer story. I combined the power of science with the power of belief. My pediatrician loves the medical world he has devoted his life to. He is a devout Catholic man who believes that prayer heals. I’m a stubborn agnostic girl with little faith in today’s medical system.

Together, we won.

I showed him that miracles can happen even if you don’t do as you’re told — if you don’t always follow the rules; if you don’t always listen to your doctors. I surprised him many times, but none of it would have been possible without his constant support; I’d have lost my way very early on.

Shortly after I stopped my infusions, I had lunch with the president of the hospital where I went through treatment, and I brought a guest: my pediatrician. I was being wooed because they wanted to use my story for hospital advertising. 

I responded by cursing up a storm about patient treatment and wait times. I eviscerated the place, and I refused to do advertising for a hospital that had let me down so badly.

I gave the man hell for destroying what my pediatrician devoted himself to building.

My pediatrician smiled, and had the fish sandwich.

I still send labs and scans to my pediatrician, though there’s now a half year between them. These days when we email, it is more as friends, an odd couple that went through something together that no one else could really understand.

That said, I’m keeping him on retainer. When you find a really great doctor, never let go.

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