By Sayeh Lavasani, MD, MSc, FRCPC
During my first year of internal medicine residency, I decided that I was interested in pursuing oncology. The only thing that was holding me back from pursuing my dream was that I had a family. I did not want to neglect my young daughter and have her grow up without a present mother. I finally decided to tell my family and see what they thought while we were eating dinner. I broke the news to my husband and daughter, who was just 6 years old at the time. She asked me what exactly medical oncology would entail. I responded that I would be treating patients who have cancer. Her facial expression exposed that she was not too enthralled. She said, “Well, I want to be a dolphin trainer when I grow up! Why do you even want to be an oncologist? To extend your patients’ lives for 2 weeks?”
I was amazed that she already knew about cancer and low survival depending on the stage and cancer type. I tried to educate her over time that the treatment for cancer is changing and patients are living longer. I even conveyed that survival can be quite good by mentioning my aunt, who has been a 25-year breast cancer survivor.
Over the years, I decided to put all my energy and focus on medical oncology. As I pursued this career, I was faced with a lot of challenges. Many of my family and friends believed that I should finish my internal medicine training and just focus on raising my daughter. I was trying to find a balance between my education and family life. I felt guilty for missing out on a lot of my daughter’s activities. I had to miss out on a lot of sports games, track meets, and plays. I felt responsible that she might become deterred from medicine as a career from seeing her mom being so busy with calls, clinical duties, and long hours.
At the same time, I found medical oncology to be very rewarding and fulfilling. I discovered satisfaction at seeing patients have a good outcome on their treatments, which let them see important events like watching their children graduate, partaking in weddings, or experiencing the birth of grandchildren. I moved for my medical oncology training and then again to do a breast cancer fellowship and a master’s degree in clinical epidemiology. I felt guiltier moving my daughter between schools, especially as she protested at moving away from all her friends. I remember talking to my breast fellowship supervisor at the University of Toronto about feeling remorseful for moving my daughter. He told me that his parents moved him to a different country and school multiple times and he finds this as a reason for his growth and success. Living your whole life in one place can make you stagnant.
When my daughter was in high school, she expressed some interest in medicine, but I did not take her too seriously. However, she proved me wrong. She came with me to the cancer center to shadow my colleagues and to volunteer in research. How was that possible? I felt guilty for years thinking I had made a bad impression on my daughter since she witnessed me in action. If I had her when I was done with my training, perhaps that would have a different effect on her. I was wrong! She was accepted to the University of Michigan for her undergraduate degree and has maintained interest to this day. Even though I find satisfaction with what I do every day, watching her grow up to be an independent, kind, and intelligent individual has been, so far, my most important achievement.
Every time that I hear my colleagues complain about not spending enough time with their children and fearing for the future for their kids, I try to tell them that time will show you differently. Focusing on your career and your family simultaneously is hard, but it is doable with proper time management and support. Just try to show your children as much love and attention as you can. They are their own people and understand much more than we think. Love can do wonders!
Dr. Lavasani is a breast medical oncologist and assistant clinical professor in the Department of Medical Oncology and Experimental Therapeutics at City of Hope National Cancer Center in Duarte, CA. Follow her on Twitter @sayehml.