The summer before I started medical school I read, One in Three: A Son’s Journey Into the History of Science and Cancer by Adam Wishart and was struck by the poignancy of the title. It refers to the number of people who will be diagnosed with cancer and Mr. Wishart’s belief that we need to stop talking about the disease in hushed tones as it becomes something "to live with rather than to die from."
I felt a flame light inside of me. I wanted to be on the frontlines of something that affected so many. I also knew that in such a conservative field, natural medicine was an uncharted frontier. To matriculate into one of the 6 hospital-based fellowship programs in integrative oncology, nationwide, I had to be the best: jump higher, run faster, work harder. And so I did.
After my clinic shifts were over, long after everyone else had hit the bars, done with patient care, I would sit in the basement library of the hospital in my scrubs and pull complicated “cases” from medical records.
Over a thermos of coffee, I would curl up in a chair and read a chart from beginning to end. On a blank sheet of paper, I would map out their health story, I would find the connections, where did it all start, how would it end, do we intervene, what is the most comprehensive and targeted intervention possible.
I graduated from medical school in 2010 and that year, was the only candidate in the nation to be accepted to Cancer Treatment of America’s Eastern Regional Medical Integrative Oncology Fellowship in Philadelphia.
Last year, my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. He lived in a small country off the southeast coast of Madagascar where I spent much of my childhood. He was a strong man, a proud man, short in stature, muscular, straight back. He was distinguished.
Quiet, stoic, prayerful, he loved me like I was an angel but he never said it, only showed it. It was in how he looked at me when I came down to breakfast, how he held my hand in the city capital, how he turned a bitter eye towards anyone who criticized me openly. My grandfather was the only person I saw who lived a life completely consistent with his values.
The medical system in my little less-developed country is mostly broken, largely rudimentary, specialty care is almost non existent. There is no palliative care. He died in the most undignified manner possible.
Until my grandfather’s diagnosis, I was one of the lucky few for whom cancer was an opportunity. An opportunity to work with people doing the hard work of living well or dying well. This work humbled me. Every patient was a gift of grace and courage and I truly believe that this work, gives my life, meaning.
Since his diagnosis, my work has become something different…in each one of my patients now, I see my mother, who is haunted by her failure to save her father, my aunt, who was in grace as she let him go, my grandmother who walked with him in life and walks towards him after his death…I see it all.
For me it’s not so much a choice to work in cancer care, as a calling. We bear witness daily…this disease can be a brutal thing, but it is also an opportunity to bring those of us who have it and those of us who work with it, closer to the person that God intends us to be, because it forces us to acknowledge that this physical world that we hold so tightly to, may not be the one we actually live in. It humbles us, it keeps us learning, it keeps us curious.
And now, for me, it is an opportunity, to give to others what I wish I could have given to my own family.