Yes, though I imagined I would have a career clipping aneurysms and removing blood clots, my patients who had brain cancer allured me. In 1996, three years after I graduated from residency, I treated a man who had a malignant glioma – operated twice in fact. He passed away in 1997 but his daughter wrote me a letter in 2000, regarding her father and my involvement.
It’s not like a doctor knowingly crafts a specific relationship with a patient; like other relationships in life, they just happen.
It wasn’t hard for me to empathize with a person with brain cancer, or with the ones they love. It wasn’t hard to spend time and want to make things better. That part was easy and automatic. Beyond any sub-specialty training or technical wizardry, that letter and that experience officially declared me as an oncologist.
I have that letter posted on my office wall. Not to pat myself on the back, but to remind me—at times when I am not in the best of moods, rushed for time, over-tired from a night on call and stressed about 12 deadlines—that what I say and how I say it has as much an impact on a person’s quality of life as the best of my operations.
The letter reminds me to be a better person than I feel like being on some days.
I promised to lead you into the world of brain tumour research, and I will. This account may seem unrelated, but it represents the driver for my interest in curing brain cancer. Curing cancer is an end-game maneuver; the motivation to be in the game is the relationship one has with people such as my patient and his family.
In other words, it’s not enough to simply show compassion and give people respect and time. One day, I want to be able to end each relationship with a “You’re cured now, please stay in touch”. Sadly that is virtually never the case.
And so I hope now you can see the natural extension of my roots as an oncologist. I had an intuitive connection with brain cancer patients: a genuine investment in them, their families, and their journey. That investment could not endure without some commitment for a happier ending than what I was seeing. Isn’t this true of any worthwhile relationship you have ever had?