Pursuing oncology never once crossed my mind before medical school.
Enter stage: one of my mentors is a pediatric oncologist, a specialty I previously could only gawk at and flounder to fathom why anyone would set themselves up for such torture. Next scene: reading the words of Siddhartha Mukherjee, and realizing that cancer is the ultimate riddle. Next scene: meeting my first cancer patient, a patient with Li Fraumeni syndrome who lit up when told about my upcoming cancer research. Next scene: Today, listening to a bright-eyed, bubbling little girl with a crooked wig tell us about her leukemia.
It began just as most do: a child with fever and fatigue, and doctors waving them out the door with words of “kindergarten germs” and “it’s just a virus”. It isn’t until later when a simple drop of blood is taken from their finger that their diagnose is truly given: cancer. Her spirit lit up the entire lecture hall as we laughed at her spunk between wiping away tears. As the family told us about a night she bled out of her mouth for 24 hours and received 11 platelet transfusions, she grabbed the microphone and explained, “My doctor says I’m like a delicate flower.”
From the parents, they explained that they have come to a profound realization: the nit picky things don’t matter. If you want to wear the wackiest outfit and like something that no one else does, it doesn’t matter. Making memories and being happy is what is truly most important.
Every day, they have a word to bring them happiness. “Yesterday was ‘sisters’. Today is ‘medicine’, because we’re at the School of Medicines!” (Again, more laughter. More tears.)
The oncologist speaking with them encouraged us to absorb this family’s experience with her diagnosis. As he spoke, I could feel our class unite in silent agreement to not disregard a worried mother’s concerns: because no one knows your body or your child like you do. I soaked in my internal promise to never disregard my gut intuition about a patient, and to never live in a straight jacket of algorithms based off a scholarly journal’s statistically calculated data. The oncologist explained how every day he is surrounded by these incredibly strong, influential individuals who are battling cancer within their bodies, while we are busy worrying about tasks to finish or what others think of us. He explained that his career reminds him what’s important: to take time to live. It can become so easy to become consumed in medicine. “But you have to remember to be well, so you can be well for your patients,” he explained. He told us how it’s more than a job for him: when you’re a child’s doctor working intimately with their condition for so many years, you become like another member of that family.
You learn so much in medical school. But you learn everything from your patients.