Dealing with prejudice as a cancer patient

I sat in seat 23F next to the window, took out my leftover dinner from my backpack, and furiously started eating. A few minutes later, a man wearing an Astros baseball cap sat next to me with a puzzled look.

“You sure look hungry.”

“I am, can’t beat fried noodles with chicken. My name’s T.J. Pleasure to meet you.”

“My name’s Mike, Mike Jordan.”

“Are you related to the Michael Jordan?”

“Ha ha! I sure wish!”

Like Michael Jordan, Mike was an avid basketball player and could hoop with the best. One day after practice though, he started to feel short of breath and minor chest pain, but continued to go about life as usual. Two weeks later, Mike started to cough and over the next month lost six pounds. After seeing his PCP and then an oncologist for imaging and blood tests, Mike was diagnosed with lung cancer at the age of 17.

Over the next several months, he underwent chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation.

“I thought things were on the up and up, until I was diagnosed with lung cancer again on my 20th birthday. What a present …”

He again elected for chemotherapy and stem cell transplantation. At 22 years old, Mike was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia.

“I was under the care of Dr. Lester and thought I was safe after the chemo.”

Mike then took off his baseball cap.

“I knew that chemo would have its side effects, but it was necessary for me to suffer through it. But I just felt so weak after the second go around I felt like dying.”

With no options remaining, Mike withdrew from college and put his dreams of medical school on hold.

“I’ve now started to go back to school and study for the MCAT, but it wasn’t until I was in the clear from my AML.”

“How was Dr. Lester as your oncologist?”

“I thought he was great in the beginning, never had a dispute with him when I had cancer. But the time he discussed AML with me everything changed.”

“What was different this time?”

“Well, I’ll repeat to you as verbatim as I can remember what he told me when I was in his office “You have more than 50 percent blasts and almost no red blood cells, no white blood cells, and no platelets. You will only live if you do chemo again.”

“There is no other option?”

“If you don’t do chemo, you will die. You are toast.”

“Are you serious? You don’t understand what I went through with chemo already … there must be another wa y…”

“Does it look like I am not serious? I’m NOT leaving this room until you agree to chemo.”

We both looked at each other, and Mike said, “I understood that English wasn’t his first language and that he spoke with a heavy accent. But when he said “toast” it broke me. I told him these exact words back: “I know that I got AML because of my previous rounds of chemo and know that I will bounce back. I will do everything else except chemo this time.”

“What happened after?”

“His look was of pure disdain, and he finally said that fine, we’ll do your bloodwork and follow up. I saw him again six months later, and my anxiety was through the roof as I waited in the exam room. I heard a loud knock, Dr. Lester walked in through only the entrance of the room, said that all my blood counts were back to normal and I no longer have AML, and simply left and slammed the door. Like what the flying hell was that? Yes, I was happy about the results, but this is the second time he showed the utmost worst bedside manner I have ever experienced.”

“I’m so sorry you had to go through this … no one should ever be treated like that.”

“Don’t be sorry, it’s the hand I was dealt, and my reason for not going through chemo again is that hey, I had cancer twice in different periods of my life, then AML. If it is meant for me to die … that is God’s plan, and I cannot fight that. But I knew in my bones that my body would recover from AML, and it did. I’m just lucky to be here.”

“Did you end up switching oncologists?”

“I did, I switched to Dr. Fallon. She is the doctor I wish I started my journey with.”

“In what ways?”

“Oh, she is an angel. An angel from heaven. I never felt like I was inferior to her and our meetings were always conversations. That’s how it should be, a meeting of the minds.”

“Have you ever ran into your old oncologist?”

“I haven’t actually, in fact, Dr. Fallon mentioned him to me recently and said that he left the country for undisclosed reasons. To this day, I will never know why he treated me the way he did, but I’m here now and doing well.”

From then on, Mike and I talked about our love for Retro Air Jordans, the Astros, Rockets, Texans, our experiences with Hurricane Harvey, our shared love for superhero movies, and countless other topics.

In a blink of an eye, three hours passed by. We landed in Houston, Texas, a place we both call home. We exchanged our numbers and agreed to meet up in the future.

“You remind me of my younger brother. He’s a good listener too. Best of luck with finishing up medical school and residency.”

“Thanks Mike, and thank you for sharing with me. Looking forward to being colleagues in the future.”

Sometimes as health care professionals, we may hold opinions that are so strong that when we speak with our patients we forget that the decision to pursue a certain treatment plan ultimately rests with the patient. We must always remember that.

All names and events have been altered to protect confidentiality.

Ton La, Jr. is a medical student and student editor, the New Physician.

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