Oncologist as Optimist?

Oncologist as Optimist?

Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP, FASCO

Jan 24, 2012

When I tell people I am an oncologist, I usually get the same response: "That must be so depressing! How do you stand it?" I remember having members of my own family ask me that way back when I was a medical resident as I made the decision to enter oncology. Now that I am in a position where I interact with medical students and residents, I find myself (relatively unconsciously) demonstrating how incredible oncology is as a profession.

There is a perception that oncology is the treatment of terminal disease; of futile treatments that sap patients of dignity, of autonomy, of life itself. I am often reminded of a line from the Natalie Merchant song, "Life is Sweet," that sums up this perception of medical oncology and anyone choosing it as a profession: "Oh, they told you life was hard—misery from the start; its slow, its dull, its painful."

Nothing can be farther from the truth. For me, oncology is more about the journey through life—a journey that I am taking and that I am witnessing with my own patients. Sure—it is about achieving remission, prolonging survival, improving quality of life—but it is as much about seeing someone hear the word cancer, process the meaning of it, seeing them discover their inner strength to forge their own path ahead. It's about my ability to help them visualize that path, along with the diverging roads, the hills and the valleys.

I often say that the bravest people I have met are cancer survivors. One can never truly imagine what it is like to live a life after cancer, to face an uncertain future, fear of recurrence, to subject yourself to painful and poisonous treatments, in the hope that time will always be on your side. They remind me how precious this life is, and how short it is—no matter if my patient is 29 or 79. We all want time. Still, it this fortitude and strength I find amazing, and it has never ceased to inspire me. 

As an oncologist, I have the honor of interacting with amazing people on a daily basis. And with the developments in personalized medicine, a plethora of novel therapies that are emerging, a better understanding of the human genome, and a call to action to improve the lives of cancer survivors by paying attention to survivorship, it's never been a better time to be in cancer medicine.

So to my astonished friends and acquaintances, and to those considering a future as an oncologist, I say this:

"I tell you life is sweet, in spite of the misery—there is so much more, be grateful. Life is short, Be thankful because before you know it, it will be over. Because life is sweet."


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