The Making of an Oncologist


The oncologist has a job unlike any other doctor. Why would anyone want to be an oncologist and what makes them so special? Here is the view of one patient.

Before I had cancer, I wondered why anyone would want to be an oncologist. My thoughts were, “you took care of all these really sick people who were bedridden with tubes running everywhere. You lost more patients than any other doctor. So why would anyone choose this specialty?”

I was naïve and very wrong.

I think I have the most fantastic oncologist in the world. She is caring, compassionate and knowledgeable. All her patients love her. My family doctor of 20-plus years has commented to me, “You will never find anyone who cares for you more than she does.” And he is correct.

But I have noticed something else. My friends who have other oncologists often feel the same way about their specialist. What makes the oncologist so unique?

Other doctors come and go in our lives. Maybe you see a primary care physician once a year. Increasingly, nurse practitioners are the ones who take care of us. Presently, we don’t even see our family doctors in the hospital because they have hospitalists for that. A surgeon takes care of a surgery and their job is done, unless one is unfortunate enough to need them again. Some people with recurring chronic illnesses may see their endocrinologist or gastroenterologist frequently.

But the oncologist is different. It is the oncologist who often has to break the news to the patient that the diagnosis is cancer, which scares every one of us. He or she has to determine the treatment and decide how much or little chemo and other treatments to give. Then this doctor is forced to watch patients become fatigued, suffer terrible side effects, lose their hair and change their life forever. Meanwhile, the oncologist needs to be the cheerleader when a patient wants to give up on a potentially lifesaving treatment.

Unless specializing in just one type of cancer, most oncologists are expected to be on top of new treatments for every type of cancer. He or she confers with other oncologists and family physicians to determine what is best for each patient. They also perform difficult bone marrows and give the depressing or sometimes happy results. They reassure angry family members because more cannot be done.

And ultimately it is the oncologist, who along with the nurses, may be holding the patient’s hand as he or she is in palliative care or hospice and transitioning over to the other side.

In summary, the life of an oncologist is an emotional roller coaster. Why would anyone do this?

The answer has come to me after spending seven-plus years in a cancer center as a patient having chemo. I talk to other patients who have told me their doctors have kept them alive for 10 years, 12 years and even longer with quality of life. My own oncologist knows my personality, my flaws and my talents. Indeed, it was she who encouraged me to write about my experiences which have been so cathartic.

I can only imagine her fantastic feelings as she tells some of her patients that they are cancer free and can go out to resume their lives. They will always remember the person who saved their life. If something changes, she will be there as a safety net with her calm demeanor to help them through. Others she gives many extra months or years of quality life they would not have otherwise. Some she has prepared for the difficult journey to dying and beyond and she does that with the utmost compassion. And there are patients like me who presently has a wonderful life. However, I will be on chemo until I pass. I know she will be there when it stops working — because she cares.

As a former counselor, I know research has shown that there is not one therapy that is more beneficial than another. The only determining factor to a successful therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the client. I always viewed my job as a spiritual journey between my client and me. I don’t mean promoting a certain religion, but that connection in the universe that is so important in any relationship, but especially a healing one.

My oncologist tells me she feels the same way. I asked her once how she does such a difficult job. She answered that her higher power gave her the spiritual strength to treat her patients. What an incredible journey for her!

Yes, I am alive today because of the miracles of research and modern medicine. Many of us are. But we are also alive because of the spiritual healing and connection between doctor and patient. That is why a doctor becomes an oncologist and why the making of an oncologist is so special! Bless all of them!

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