I’m almost five years away from my initial cancer diagnosis. That’s a big deal. Five years from the end of chemo and I’ll be released back into civilian life, perhaps never to see the inside of a CT scanner or MRI machine again.
I had my quarterly checkup last week, and all my blood counts were normal. “Normal” even for someone who’s never had cancer – imagine that. The worst news I heard was that my oncologist, who has been a rock through this whole horrible ordeal, is moving on to another project and won’t be seeing patients for a while. He’s off to research targeted immunotherapy agents and probably to be part of a discovery that will save thousands of lives – it’s good and important work. But he has to go back to working with patients directly again, because he’s one of those people who’s meant to be a caregiver.
I’ve been through all of this treatment in one of the world’s largest hospitals, and MGH can certainly be intimidating and impersonal. And yet – from the moment I first heard “it’s probably cancer,” I’ve had people whose time and energy are clearly stretched to their limits make sure to connect with me and take care of me.
My PCP, who insisted on referring me for that colonoscopy in 2011, called me at home on a Friday night as soon as she saw the procedure results, and checked on me again over that dreadful weekend, knowing that I’d be lying awake at night staring at the ceiling and wondering what to tell my very young children. She is now working in palliative care, which is exactly the right place for someone who knows that what people in pain need is compassion along with medical expertise.
My surgeon, despite his generally brusque manner, visited my hospital room when I was in recovery, held my hand and said, “I’m sorry all this is happening to you. You don’t deserve it.”
My chemo nurse told me silly jokes, brought my daughter popsicles, spent an hour with me sitting patiently while I struggled to learn how to disconnect my infusion pump, and called me after my second round, when she knew I’d be disconnecting it at home alone, just to be sure everything was OK.
And then there’s Dr. Faris, my oncologist. I’ve cried with him. I’ve told him I felt fine when I really didn’t, and he knew it. He, too, has called at night and on weekends to check on me, to make sure my husband was doing OK, to make sure my kids weren’t too scared. He came in to the hospital the day after my surgery – during his paternity leave – to check on his patients. He looked as exhausted as you’d expect the father of three young children, one of them just a few days old, to look, but he’d been through all the surgical notes and he sat through all my opiate-blurred chatter. He’s always late for appointments because he spends too much time talking to his patients.
I know that our health care system is in many ways a nightmare, and that it’s difficult to navigate, and much too expensive. But I also know that there are people who work in that system because, in the end, they really do care about saving lives. I’ve met them. I will be forever grateful.