I Wish I Didn’t Need an Oncologist at All, But I’m Thankful for the One I Had

I wish I didn’t need to see an oncologist at all, but am thankful that the one I had was amazing.

Just as people become attached to their therapists, it must be common for patients with cancer to grow to love the oncologists we hate that we ever had to see.

Like many patients, I was unhappy with my first oncologist, for reasons having nothing to do with his competence. I just…didn’t like him. I’ve known several patients who’ve “fired” their first oncologist, saying the doctor’s bedside manner wasn’t up to snuff, the staff wasn’t friendly enough or it just didn’t feel right.

The real reason, I believe, is that we don’t want to be in an oncologist’s office at all. We definitely do not want to hear what they need to tell us about really and truly having cancer. Choosing a different doctor gives us a sense of being in charge of a situation we did not choose.

Regardless of my reasoning for leaving that first oncologist, I’m so grateful I wound up in the office of the second, Dr. Delphine Ong.

On my initial visit, I found her thorough, patient and willing to take enough time to explain everything to both me and my worried husband. She was straightforward and no-nonsense — not in the least condescending or falsely upbeat. She offered the barest minimum of small talk, but I was comforted by her air of competence and dedication to explaining my specific situation in depth.

I was raised the daughter of an Army doctor, trained to “suck it up” and minimize ailments, to suspect that any symptom not involving actual bone sticking through skin is probably “in your head.”

Cancer, though, is completely different. As I healed from two surgeries, months of chemo and radiation, fear of recurrence settled in. I developed symptoms. There was the persistent cough (lung metastases?), rib pain (spread to the bone?), that one weird headache (the brain?). Each time, I waited, then became worried enough to make an appointment with Dr. Ong.

“This is probably nothing,” I’d begin.

She’d level her gaze at me, and say, “My job is to determine if it’s something or not. Your job,” she’d add, matter-of-fact, “is simply to report. OK? You don’t have to worry about determining what it means.”

What a relief. My ailments may in fact have been psychologically generated, but that was OK. She understood. She ordered the tests that revealed nothing seriously amiss and, eventually, all symptoms disappeared.

After a few years, my conversations with Dr. Ong took on a new, lighthearted ease. The hormonal medication side effects were annoying but manageable. I was fit, enjoying retirement and genuinely happy to see her every four-to-six months.

Still thorough and concerned, she’d palpate my breasts and under my arms, but we’d also chat about family, books and the news. Instead of fearing our regular appointments, I grew to look forward to them as I would having coffee with an old friend.

Ten years as her patient seemed to fly by, and one day I “graduated” from oncology. It was time to leave Dr. Ong and let my family practitioner handle routine medical care. My hug and thank-yous to Dr. Ong didn’t feel like enough. As happy as I was to quit taking pills and put cancer completely out of my mind, I felt bereft at losing this relationship. Who would I ever trust this much? With whom would I share this odd sort of intimacy, rekindled just once or twice a year?

My care became like any other woman’s, with routine annual mammograms. That awful cancer experience receded in my mind until, 13 years after my first diagnosis, a new tumor was discovered near my lumpectomy scar.

I’d require chemo, again, and this time, a mastectomy. What a shock. The only good news was my reunion with Dr. Ong. Whatever was ahead, at least I’d have the confidence and comfort of being under her care.

“I am very sorry to see you here,” she said, looking almost angry that my cancer had returned.

“I’m sorry to be here, too,” I said. “But it’s really great seeing you!” And I meant it.

We met during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and above her mask I could see the stress in her eyes. The hospital was jammed. Her patients were particularly vulnerable, and even more of them than usual would not survive. As comforting as she’d been to me, I wished I could give her relief.

About that time, a dear friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I referred her to Dr. Ong. After their first appointment my friend sheepishly told me that she didn’t think she’d go with my recommendation.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe I need someone a little more touchy-feely.”

I urged her to go back at least once. “Nobody likes the oncologist they see first,” I said.

Over the next three years my friend has thanked me over and over for that persistence. “I love Dr. Ong,” she says.We both do.

And now it’s come time for Dr. Ong to take her well-deserved retirement. When I told her how grateful I was for her getting me through, she held both my hands and said, her eyes serious, “It’s my job.” No hero worship, please.

Then I realized the burden it must be when patients credit her for their survival — what if they hadn’t survived?Nonetheless, we offer our thanks, and wish her serenity in the knowledge that she’s held so many of us up, and so very well.

This post was written and submitted by Ann Bancroft. The article reflects the views of Ann Bancroft and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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