“You look beautiful,” he said to me, beaming, as if he took some credit for ‘the vision’ he saw before him. “Just like you looked when you sang for me.” I smiled up at my oncologist from the examining table, sitting in my paper gown with my full head of short hair. I was nearing the end of more than a year of treatment for breast cancer: biopsies, chemo, major surgery, radiation and regular infusions of an antibody to prevent recurrence. I had not spent the year feeling beautiful.
Four years ago, I was asked to sing for my future doctor at a gala being given in his honor. In addition to being a psychologist by day, someone on the gala committee knew I loved to write and perform song parodies. I would be the surprise entertainment at this black-tie affair to honor a man who not only saved many lives, but also, was philanthropic and caring at the saintly level. While gathering information about Dr. N. to create my song, I learned he was funny and a snappy dresser, and generally adored and revered. I thought to myself, "I don’t know this man, but god forbid I ever need him in my life, he’ll never forget me." So, dressed in my finest, listening to tearful testimonials from patients, and watching him receive an original Peter Maxx painting of him and his wife, I dared to sing for this oncology superstar. I think he loved it.
Last January, sitting in my radiologist’s office following a very unsuccessful mammogram, I knew Dr. N. and I were going to become very well acquainted on a whole new level. It was time to cash in my song parody card.
As an adolescent, I was never enamored of teen idols. I did not hang up posters of Davy Jones or write fan mail to Donny Osmond. My very practical self used to think, "I will never meet this person. He will never know I exist. Why bother?" I cast my sights on the talented but attainable. In my early 20s, I fell in love with and married an artist, a writer and an eventual successful fund raiser, my very own "idol" all rolled into one handsome human being.
But, as much as my husband was going to be able to stand by my side during this ordeal, there was little he was going to be able to do to make me better. I wanted the best. I wanted an oncology superstar.
Scared to death last February, I sat on the examining table, again in the paper gown, and waited for Dr. N to enter the room. “You look familiar,” he said as it dawned on him who I was. He proceeded to examine me and lay out my course of treatment over the next two hours. I was his last patient of the day. Overwhelmed and completely daunted at the end of our visit, I asked, “Am I going to live?” “Absolutely,” was his confident reply.
Thus truly began our relationship. I felt like I put my life completely in his hands, and, ever the good student, I wanted to please him and succeed. I needed to do everything he said.
As a psychologist for the last 25 years, I am very well aware of the concept of transference. This is the unconscious redirection of feelings from one person (typically a family member from childhood) to another. A positive transference can often help the treatment. Similarly, a good fit is necessary between therapist and client for treatment to proceed in a healthy direction. Clients who come to see me don’t want to think about the client who is coming in for the next appointment or the one who walked out of my office before they came in. They want to feel they are the most important and the only focus of my attention. I am not sure who Dr. N. represented from my past, but I do know we worked well together. And, somehow, he made me feel special. I was realistic enough to know he probably made everyone feel that way. But, still, I was the one who sang for him … before anything was at stake.
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.