My Path to Cancer Care

The doctor left after delivering the news. I, a medical student, remained with the 27-year-old female patient in the small, cold, white room. She asked, “Does this mean I’m going to die?" I searched my mind for everything I could remember about lymphoma, but nothing I could say would provide her the peace of mind she desperately needed. I answered honestly, “I’m not sure.” At that moment, I felt like a terrible medical student, but I knew I could still salvage how I appeared as a husband. I gave my wife a hug. I told her I loved her. That was six years ago.

Like many others upon hearing about a cancer diagnosis, I immediately went to the internet to learn more. I remember typing search terms into Google and hearing the intense beating of my heart with each keystroke. There was so much to read that I was overwhelmed. Fortunately, my medical school training had prepared me to quickly sift through massive amounts of information. It also helped me identify and discard the misinformation that is so prevalent online. I eventually found the data I was looking for. After many thoughtful discussions with my wife's doctors, she began treatment with chemotherapy.

Today, we celebrated not only a cancer remission anniversary but a cancer cure anniversary. My wife and I often think back to those days following her initial diagnosis and talk about how raw our emotions were and how vulnerable we felt. We wonder how things would have been different if the years of research and medicine that saved her life didn’t exist OR if we had believed the misinformation that tries to discredit medical research. Had she been diagnosed just 50-60 years ago, there’s a chance she would have been sent to a hospital to die, maybe even St Jude's, (which, not coincidentally, was named after the patron saint of lost causes). Fortunately—for her, for me, and for everyone else who has been privileged to know her—today, approximately 85% of those with her type of cancer are cured.

This experience helped guide me to choose a career in cancer care, where I knew I’d have the opportunity to make a difference, build lasting relationships with patients, and provide them with answers to their questions. Questions like the one my wife posed to me after her diagnosis. Unfortunately, I have witnessed an alarming trend since entering medicine: many patients have chosen to forego or delay cancer treatments that have been proven to prolong life and/or cure their cancer in favor of unproven alternative therapies. These decisions lead to devastating consequences, which I’ve seen firsthand. Just recently, I spent a sleepless night after failing to persuade a young patient to reconsider his decision to refuse cancer treatment.

As someone who has experienced the fear and confusion that comes with a cancer diagnosis, and someone with the training and experience to know the consequences of choosing to forego treatment, I feel I have a personal responsibility to those that are desperately searching for answers about alternative therapies. As soon as patients are diagnosed, they’re bombarded with false and exaggerated information via the internet or from well-meaning friends and family. I know, because it happened to my wife. Unfortunately, this information is often incorrect or promotes unproven treatments.

Here, I invite patients, families, and friends to ask questions. It’s my goal to answer these questions by sharing my personal experiences and discussing the scientific evidence (or the lack thereof) behind treatment recommendations. With this blog, I hope to positively impact the course of people’s lives and illnesses, similar to the way that my wife and I benefited from my training at the time of her diagnosis.