Why I Keep Quiet about Being a Cancer Doctor

A prestigious oncology journal recently published an opinion piece titled, “Why I Keep Quiet about Being a Cancer Doctor.” I was depressed after reading it, because the author self-identified as “someone who deals with the onslaught of disease and despair day in and day out.”

If that is his true outlook, no wonder he keeps quiet! He seemed to have difficulty answering the question, “How do you do this every day?” When he managed to reflect poetically about the nuances and minefields of daily practice, it was almost apologetically.

Let me just say, I love being asked what I do. Maybe that’s because I love what I do!

I love my patients, for one thing, and I try hard not fall into the easy trap of judging people based on lifestyle or insurance status. Whether their cancer was self-inflicted or environmental, genetically linked or totally random, I find there is always something in everyone worthy of compassion and care.

Cancer is a journey, and cancer patients need to trust that their physician is committed to going on the journey with them. I do that, honestly, out of respect for the dignity of each individual. It doesn’t hurt that I am constantly aware that my time may come, and I, too, want to be treated with compassion and respect.

I love being a provider of hope. That’s not limited just to hope for cure, as much of a desired goal that may be. Sometimes my most grateful patients have been the ones I have told are dying. They usually knew it, but nobody would talk to them about it (not to mention they were afraid to ask). Giving them hope — of comfort, of peace, of relief of pain — is very gratifying. Their care is no less important than the wonderful cures we prefer to celebrate.

Of course, I love sharing the news of success in oncology. In the more than 25 years I have been in practice, the cure rate of all cancers combined increased from 50 percent to 70 percent. That is a remarkable improvement! Many cancers have five-year survival rates well above 90 percent. Last month — Breast Cancer Awareness Month — we celebrated the fact that the breast cancer death rate has dropped 40 percent over the same period of time.

Yes, the oncologist writer rightly pointed out how demanding (and emotionally exhausting) it can sometimes be to be a cancer doctor. We don’t cure pancreatic cancer often at all. And it is frustrating that the cancer that kills more people than any other — lung cancer — is almost entirely preventable. And we’ve all known that for more than 50 years.

I do tire of dealing with the cancer conspiracy theories that inevitably come up, like, “Drug companies have a cure; they are just keeping it from us.”

But rather than ignore or avoid opportunities to both dispel myths and celebrate research triumphs, I relish the chance to advocate not only for my specialty, but for organizations like the American Cancer Society and movements like hospice care, which help us with everything from research, prevention and early detection, treatment support and survivorship, to palliative and end of life care where needed.

Above all, being a physician (and specifically an oncologist) is for me a sacred calling. How can I keep quiet about what I love and am called to do? I can’t suppress talking or writing about my passion any more than a bird can stop chirping in the spring. That’s worth shouting about!

By Dr. Sid Roberts

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