Editor’s note: Today is National Cancer Survivors Day.
I admire my patients for their courage; they give me a completely different perspective on life and make me a better person.
Back when I was in medical school, I made the decision to become a gynecologic oncologist because I wanted to combine surgery, critical care and medicine, while taking care of patients through their battle with cancer.
One of the most important aspects for me was that it would allow me to honor the memory of my grandparents who both died from cancer — I really felt I owed them that since they were responsible for all my achievements.
Gynecologic oncology is one of a few of cancer specialties that allows doctors to care for a patient from the day of their cancer diagnosis until the end of their life: starting with surgery, followed by chemotherapy, radiation or both, then hopefully remission and longevity, or in some cases recurrence. This gives me a connection to my patients, as well as an opportunity to understand other important aspects of cancer care that might not be obvious to many.
I had no idea that, in addition to acquiring surgical skills and participating in the latest research, I would find a completely different side of cancer care: An everyday struggle that all my patients have to overcome either during treatment or after treatment is completed.
There are immediate and long-term side effects of cancer treatment: surgical incisions, side-effects of chemotherapy and radiation, incredible fatigue, becoming immunocompromised, and being unable to eat not only their favorite foods, but any food at all. And this is just in the primary treatment phase. If there are no signs of residual or persistent cancer, the next phase begins.
This is when — all of a sudden — everything stops: the cancer patient is told they are free of disease and their next appointment is in three months. Everybody suddenly disappears from the patient’s life because they are supposed to be cancer free and “fine.” They are told, “Be grateful you are alive!” But at what expense? Cancer patients come out of their treatment with a lot of damage: scars, lost muscle mass, suppressed immune systems, altered digestion, loss of sensation, loss of hearing — and one of the most debilitating: constant fear of cancer recurrence.
Cancer treatment requires a lot of courage and determination. I think it’s very important for us as physicians to understand what our patients’ goals are and what their limitations are. It’s important for us as physicians to understand what our own limitations are as well.
I try to engage my patients in their own care and be active participants in their treatment.
Family involvement is invaluable through the treatment. Emotional support becomes incredibly important once cancer patients enter their survivorship phase, trying to find their “new normal.”
I am eternally grateful to all my cancer patients for their love of life and the sacrifices they make, for their patience with us doctors and nurses, and for their perseverance. I am also grateful to their families for all the support they give us. Today on National Cancer Survivors Day I want to say thank you to all of the brave cancer survivors. It is easy to give up; it is not easy to fight!
Dr. Lyuba Levine is a gynecologic oncologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch.