What do you do when a colleague has cancer?

This year has brought about change — the theme of 2017. As it comes to a close and I reflect back, it is so hard to believe what is going on in the world today, let alone just the United States.

In 2017, I graduated from my internal medicine residency training program, passed my board exam and celebrated my one-year wedding anniversary. I helped my family cope with my grandmother’s progressive dementia and supported them as we realized she could no longer live at home. Despite all of these big life events, nothing made me feel the way I felt after I heard that a colleague of mine still finishing residency was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.

It is the type of information that we are built to process; our first instinct is to look it up and hope it has a good prognosis. The next step is to question the first journal or study we read and find another source that showed a better outcome. It put me in a state of disbelief. We always say life is short, but it is things like this that really bring that point home. I found myself wondering who do I feel so sad? Do I even have the right to feel this way?

We see it with our patients every day. We empathize, we put ourselves in the shoes of their younger family members. But what happens when it happens to a fellow resident? A person you know has spent the last eight to ten years studying and preparing for a long career in medicine. It is difficult to comprehend the feelings, and you don’t know what to do. Do you write a card? Do you take them to watch a movie? If you weren’t close before their diagnosis would they even want to spend time with people that feel these feelings of guilt and sadness for them?

We try to put ourselves in their shoes. We rationalize, we use defense mechanisms that we have used throughout our lives to cope. We have experienced so many things in our years of preparing for medicine in undergraduate school, medical school and in residency — but nothing can truly prepare you for this.

We know the statistics, yet we always feel invincible and immune to the thousands of diseases we read about. I found myself thinking now more than ever about not using a cell phone because of radiation. And should I really be eating so much fast food? What are all those chemicals that we use in soaps and shampoos and deodorants?

We wonder why these things happen to people so young? They have spent their entire lives training to become the best doctor to take care of people and heal them so they can go back to their families. What happens when that dream is taken from you so abruptly, and you are now the patient?

It is a difficult road to cross, what can you do to help them get through this emotionally? Can it really be an accepted reality? I started to face what I consider “magical thinking.” Maybe the diagnosis is wrong, maybe all the journals and the prognosis won’t apply to this situation.

The reason why I felt compelled to write this article is to bring up the fact that we as a medical society can be so quick to judge our colleagues and label them as lazy or faking sick so they don’t have to take the long call shift. We need to show our colleagues the same respect we treat our patients. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and no matter how exhausted, mentally or physically, we never anchor and never jump to conclusions about a person and their symptoms. As we have all learned from our training and experiences anchoring never turns out well. Show compassion, because you can never predict when something like this will happen.

We have a colleague with an aggressive cancer whose only wish is to finish residency. As fellow colleagues and being part of the program, what can you do? You help them make their wish come true. If you weren’t friends before the diagnosis of cancer, it doesn’t mean you need to be friends now. That would be illogical, and I can’t imagine someone in their position wanting to be bombarded with people that are only becoming present due to guilt.

I think the best thing you can do is understand that life is short, enjoy it to its fullest which is something most physicians I have seen are not very good at doing. There is always the next study or project or job that comes up. Pause, take a breath and really evaluate what is important to you. If you had a cancer with a poor prognosis, would your wish be to finish your training or would it be to travel the world? We all have different values, but one thing should be shared throughout our field, never jump to conclusions, always support those around you and empathize with patients and their families. I firmly believe that you should treat every patient as if they were your own family. Never take these amazing opportunities to help the sick for granted because everything can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye.

To the fellow colleague with this diagnosis, I write this article so you will never be forgotten. I wish I had an idea of what to do for someone in this position, but after reflecting to see what I would want, I realized I would want three things. I hope you are able to be with your true friends and family, to be away from those with guilt who will try to become a part of your life and to know that your quest to become a physician was not in vain. You will never be forgotten and have touched the lives of so many around you.

The author is an anonymous physician. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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