When people find out that I am an oncologist (a doctor who manages cancer patients), I always get a baffled and scared look from them. Or sometimes I hear them say “Yikes!”. I also get questions like “Why?” or “Isn’t it difficult ” or “How can you deal with it?”.
You probably wouldn’t believe it, but I am so grateful that I was propelled into this specialty. My practice is the most satisfying, gratifying and fulfilling job. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like hearing people being diagnosed with cancer nor having to tell them that their cancer has returned. I feel very sad every time this happens but there is something about oncology that makes it really special.
When I was around 5 or 6 years old, I remember having mentioned innocently one time that I wanted to become a doctor. This was brought about by my dad having episodes of chest pain and we were afraid that he might be having a heart attack. (But now that I’m a doctor, I know that he was just malingering and just trying to get some attentionJ).
Being the daddy’s girl that I am, of course losing my dad was the scariest thing that could ever happen and I wanted to be the one to make him well. So I said that “when I grow up, I want to be a doctor”. But my daddy perhaps thought that it would be a wonderful thing if his little girl will someday become a doctor.
So in the following days, weeks, months, years, decades, he kept on repeating to everybody that I will become a doctor until one day, I really wanted to become a doctor. So I was practically brainwashed :).
When I was in elementary and high school, I started telling people that “When I grow up…(I wanna be famous, I wanna be a star, I wanna be in movies….Excuse me Pussycat Dolls) I wanna be a doctor. When I went to college, my mind was set on taking a “pre-med” course.
After college, I did not entertain getting a job because I was bent on pursuing medicine. Eventually, the inevitable happened and I became a doctor (So be careful what you wish for cause you just might get it, you might just get).
But Why Oncology?
This is a question I have asked myself so many times. Often, people are inspired to become someone because of they have been touched directly by specific circumstances.
Example, A doctor who specializes in gastroenterology (diseases of the stomach, intestines, liver, etc) became inspired to take up that specialty because his mother had stomach cancer when he was still in training. A doctor specialized in palliative care because one of her children was diagnosed with leukemia. In my case, it was sheer exhaustion from training.
You see, doctors have to go through more than a quarter of a century of studying to become an MD (including elementary and high school). After obtaining our license to practice medicine, we need to devote another 5-10 years to become a specialtist or subspecialist or nowadays, a sub-sub-specialist.
Example, there are now oncologists who specialize in breast cancer, lung cancer, lymphoma, etc. Someday perhaps, we will be specializing in cancer of the right breast or left breast or left or right lung. That is how much information has exploded. So it really takes a long time to grow in this profession and the journey can be quite exhausting.
Doctors who go on duty or what lay people more popularly know as “on call” often stay in the hospital for 24-36 hours with very little food, rest and sleep (torture!!!!!). They will go home to sleep (that is, if they don’t have any reports to make) and be back at the hospital on the following day at 7 am.
I remember that when I was in training, it didn’t matter anymore what day it was. If you’d ask me what day it is, it would take quite a while before I am able to answer because in my mind, it was either my duty day or not. I remember back then that when watching tv, I always looked forward to the commercials than the show because the commercials were always new to me.
I went through 5 years of those to become an internist (doctor for adults, this is the counterpart of the pediatrician). Two of those 5 years as an intern then 3 years to train as a specialist.
On my last year of training, I was chief resident (Naks!) so that on top of my responsibilities as a doctor in training, I had additional administrative responsibilities such as making sure that the newbies are not sleeping on their duties and all other stuff to carry out the torture. Burn out was imminent but I knew I had to do subspecialty training for a better chance of attracting patients in Metro Manila.
The Clincher for Oncology
Among the subspecialties, training in cardiology (heart), pulmonology (lungs), nephrology (kidneys), etc required the same rigorous lifestyle as in internal medicine. That meant that I had to go on excruciatingly long duties again and I felt that I could no longer keep on doing that. In addition, there were already many of these subspecialists around so I wanted to be among the not so common.
We had this oncologist in our hospital, Dr. Gracieux Fernando, who is so eloquent, passionate and inspiring about oncology such that when he speaks, it is as if all patients will be cured. I was inspired by him to become an oncologist (so whenever I’m having some difficult cases, I jokingly tell him that this is all his fault) plus the fact that training in this specialty did not require such rigorously long hours in the hospital like all the other specialties. The duties are just like any long day’s work. I didn’t mind the long days as long as I could go home sleep on my bed every night, even if not 8 hours. That was very important for me back then. So oncologist I became.