My first week on chemo I developed an infection, likely the result of one too many breast biopsies and a plummeting white blood cell count preventing my complete healing. I showed up in Dr. N’s office in significant discomfort with a low-grade fever and promptly burst into tears, the first tears I really shed since my diagnosis. After a brief exam, he was on the phone with the hospital, booking a room. I was to bypass the bureaucracy of admission, go straight to my hospital bed and have IV antibiotics administered as soon as possible. Again, I looked into his eyes and asked, “Am I going to be O.K.?” He looked me square in the face and said, “That’s why we’re doing this. We don’t mess around.” But he didn’t use the word mess. Then I asked, “How did I get a room so fast?” With a straight face he replied, “Somebody died this morning. They just cleaned the room. I thought it would have good karma.” It took me a few minutes to realize he was kidding, but I did stop crying.
While in the hospital, Dr. N ordered me gourmet dinners from food services. He sent a patient to visit me because she was at the end of her treatment, and he knew we’d hit it off. He asked me to sing for the oncology floor. While wearing a mask and sporting an IV, I told him I was not Rachel from Glee, and I couldn’t just break into song in the halls. Yet, I promised him that as soon as I recovered, I would sing for whomever he wanted.
Wherever I went for a scan or a blood test, the nurses and techs would ask who my oncologist was. When I would say Dr. N., they would ooh and ahh and tell me he was the best and how lucky I was to be his patient. I felt I was connected to medical royalty and wanted to be a worthy subject.
At each monthly check-up, Dr. N would regale me with crazy jokes and stories, almost helping me forget why I was there. He was a font of esoteric information. One visit he went into the history of the coelacanth, a living fossil sea creature found in Madagascar. On another occasion he waxed on about Thomas Jefferson. He told me about a book he thought I would like and impulsively went to his computer and ordered it for me. He would promptly respond to my every email about my numerous complaints of aches or nausea or sore throats, one time meeting me early in the morning at the hospital to see if I needed an antibiotic. I felt like Michael Jackson with my very own private doctor; yet, mine was going to make sure I was going to live.
And then I was replaced. For several visits in a row, Dr. N. told me about another woman, much younger than I, who had my type of breast cancer, but worse, who ran 5 and 10Ks during treatment to raise money for breast cancer, who chauffeured another cancer patient to treatment and who generously donated to his cancer foundation. Oh, and she was also a "doll." All I wanted to ask was, "Does she sing?"
The truth was I had finished my chemo, my cancer was in remission, and Dr. N. had many patients yet to cure. Our relationship did not need to continue as it had. While in the middle of treatment, I remembered asking Dr. N. if I would need to see him for the rest of my life. At the time, I was asking, wondering if as a cancer survivor one needed to always be in the care of an oncologist. Since he is older than I, he replied no; he assumed I would live longer than he.
Just as the intimacy of a therapy relationship eventually comes to an end as a client progresses through treatment, so too does the oncologist/patient relationship come to its natural conclusion when the patient is lucky enough to live. How could I feel sad about this? The fact was everyone made me feel special in the past year, although not everyone was responsible for curing me.
Lately, I rarely need to call or email Dr. N. We only need to visit every three months. With each appointment, I am sure he will be glad to see me as I will look forward to seeing him. He will tell me silly jokes, while examining me and share his latest adventures with trips he’s taken or books he’s read or patients he’s helped. Yet, when I hold my celebration in honor of my recovery I will be asking everyone to donate to his cancer foundation, and I will sing a great song parody. After all, I want him to remember me best.