For me, one of the hardest parts of getting this diagnosis, I think, was who to let know. I decided I had to tell my work colleagues in breast oncology, my family, my close friends, and my fellow MIT classmates and professors. People reacted to hearing my diagnosis in different — sometimes disappointing — ways. But I learned how much so many people cared about me, and that allowed me to ignore the reactions of those who let me and my family down.
Many patients were already scheduled to have their surgery with me. Until I started treatment at the end of the week, I operated on as many as I could. The rest I had to call and share my news with. These were some of the hardest calls I have ever made. I was letting my patients down. After my “last” case, I let some members of the operating room team know about my diagnosis. The news spread like wildfire. Everyone knew I had cancer now.
A few days later, it was time for my port-a-cath to be placed for chemotherapy to start. The port-a-cath is inserted under the skin so that drugs can easily reach a person’s veins. So many of my patients have this done, and I’ve always thought of it as such a minor procedure. Well, it turns out I hated it. It became a badge of sickness for me, something that constantly reminded me that I had cancer. I could see the port, and I constantly felt it. When I get back to practicing, I will remember the feeling.
I was told the hospital would call me to let me know what I should do to prepare for the port-a-cath placement. I waited, but no one called. So I had to call them, twice. How could they forget? So often we hear about the need for patients to take charge of their own care; it was strange to experience it on the other side. As a physician, I just assumed the systems work.
When I arrived at the hospital a couple days later, my provider went over all the pros and cons of having a port-a-cath placed. I couldn’t help but think, “Do I really have a choice to say no?” The procedure went fine, and when I awoke from the sedation, I was craving a cup of coffee. It was one of the last cups of coffee I’d enjoy for awhile. For 20 years, I used to drink a cup a day, but during the many months of receiving chemotherapy, I couldn’t stomach it, not a single cup.
The day after the port placement, despite the pain and still recovering from the procedure, my wife and I drove up to Maine. I had accepted an invitation to give a presentation at a major cancer conference there a year prior to my diagnosis. I sat through a panel of esteemed cancer surgeons who spoke about various treatments for lung cancer, breast cancer, and, of course, “my” cancer. When it was my turn, I stood in front of the audience and began my usual lines of how great we are at treating cancer — all the data and statistics. No one knew I was sick, but I couldn’t move my head to the right. Each time I tried, I felt the port-a-cath, and it hurt. I was trying to hide my cancer, but it was sticking its ugly head out. Despite covering my bandages that stretched to my neck and biting through the pain, the cancer was winning that day.
As fall turned to winter, I started to notice things I hadn’t seen when I had been busy studying for exams, training to be a surgeon, or working. I noticed the leaves change color and fall as we took walks in the neighborhood. I found myself wondering if I’ll experience the seasons change again next year. Of course I will, but sometimes it’s hard to believe much of anything in those moments when all you know is pain and helplessness — and I will never forget that.
Today, nine months after my cancer diagnosis, I’ve completed all treatment, and I am cancer free. I’ve managed to complete my MBA program, and I graduated June 7. I’m making many promises to my future patients and to myself, including to always remember what this was like. I will not forget how terrifying it was to be told you have cancer. How painful each needle and catheter felt, how chemotherapy ruined my appetite, what it was like when my providers forgot to call.
I’m still learning so much as a physician, now in a new way.