I Am Not Eternal

24 March 2020

I spoke to the latest oncologist assigned to mollify me yesterday about life expectancy now that the stage 4 lung cancer has entered my brain. We talked about further radiotherapy — I’ve just had a round that went by swimmingly until the last day and then threw me into a personal apocalypse for over a week — a return to chemotherapy and the new third generation targeted therapy drug I’ve just started. She knew I’d read the literature on the latter and it’ll keep me going, on average, around 10 months before the other options are all that’s left. But maybe I’ll be lucky and get another year or two. She told me about clinical trials and the rapid rate of change in drug availability. But we both knew I understood precisely what ‘terminal’ meant: around a year and a half +/- whatever bonus I might get.

Out of curiosity I asked her why she chose to specialise in oncology. It is, after all, a field in which almost all patients die, and despite the glowing headlines cancer research isn’t delivering much more than the occasional few extra days of life for patients with the 200-odd complex diseases we so flippantly brush together and label the singular ‘cancerter’. Not a happy scenario at all.

Unlike almost every other oncologist I’ve spoken to — around 10 in a system that assigns doctors randomly for each patient visit — she admitted that she could do nothing for patients except give them drugs and talk to them. The talking, she said, was the most important part, and what attracted her to the field. People need to communicate their greatest fears, their hopes forlorn or otherwise and be told first that someone is there for them and then what they might not have relished they could still do.

I was so unwell and had already had her explain 18 of my current symptoms that I didn’t ask her name or look for her ID, and she was as masked as I was in these virus plagued days. But it struck me that she was the most personable doctor I had ever spoken to, and there have been very many. I am not eternal and for far more mundane reasons, neither is she. But her belief in the power of communication is. At least I hope so. It’s inspired me to start writing again. Maybe about cancer, but as Dr House once said, “cancer’s boring”. Well, too much of it is. And I’ve only got a short time to write.

Cancer, communication, writing, oncology