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Who Has an Oncologist?

August 27, 2013

Way back in the beginning, when we were figuring out what our next, first, step would be after we learned that I had cancer, we were told “First, you meet with your oncologist.”

Who has an oncologist?

It’s not like a dentist or a gynecologist or a pediatrician. Even with those, you have some space to breathe while you figure the whole thing out. “Who is your dentist,” you can ask your friends with the best teeth. And with a pediatrician, you have a whole nine months to choose someone — and if you find yourself with a bad fit, it’s an easy thing to change course — you just go to a different doctor.

Cancer is not like that.

We heard it first from the kind and capable surgeon who initially diagnosed my disease. She said, “After the surgery, you will meet with your oncologist and set up a treatment plan.”

We cracked up.  Chris pulled out his phone and faked it. Here, let me just look up that number.

“Who has an oncologist?” we asked her. “How do you even find an oncologist?”

She gave us some names. Only one of them could meet with us; that doctor said, “25% of my patients in your situation have an excellent result.”

“What about the other 75%?”

“Let’s just focus on the 25%.”

That was when I decided to keep looking, a decision that resulted in my treatment at MD Anderson, where they estimated my odds around 40%. I went with the numbers. Obviously, in my case, it worked.

Choosing an oncologist is not like choosing any another kind of doctor. It is more like choosing a plumber when you have a gushing pipe leak caused by corrosion, and the plumber is going to have to tear apart your entire house and rebuild it differently in order to fix the problem — and the whole time you are dithering and wondering, foetid water (and worse) is gathering around your ankles and rotting out your floors and ceilings.

When a person with cancer has chosen their doctor, they have already done the best they can.

I get a lot of phone calls from friends and friends-of-friends who have been told they have cancer, or whose relatives have cancer, asking my advice about choosing an oncologist. Evidently my not-dead status makes me an “expert” — and in a way, it does, because how else do you pick a doctor except by asking friends.

I always say the same thing:  When someone you care about has cancer, the least helpful thing you can do is criticize the choices they have made regarding their treatment. And to people who have cancer, I say, It sounds like you have done a great job examining your options and I am sure you will make the right decision.

I wound up at the #1 ranked cancer center in the world. The Saudi Royal Family has the same doctors that I do. And yet people, even — especially — friends, saw fit to criticize my choice. They said, Weren’t the hospitals in Dallas good enough for you? Isn’t it terribly expensive? Aren’t you inconveniencing your family? Isn’t that kind of selfish?

Selfish?

No intends to be horrible to their friends with cancer. No one says cruel things on purpose It’s just something that happens. What they are actually saying is:

You, my friend, are probably going to die and this might be the last time I ever see you, and I’m really upset about it so I am going to open my mouth, and out comes word soup.

I didn’t sit down to write this essay with the mindset of giving advice, but I’m going to anyway.

This, unintentional horrible word soup, is the reason that platitudes exist.

Before you go to visit your friend with cancer, practice word soup prevention. Spend some time looking in the mirror and saying:

  • If anyone can get through this, it’s you.
  • Who cares what you look like. You looked much worse in the morning during Spring Break when we were in college.
  • I’m here for you.
  • I am praying for you.
  • I need your advice on (insert non-cancer related topic).
  • Look at you! You are doing great!
  • I put a chicken spaghetti or some homemade lasagna in your freezer.
  • Shut up and listen because I have some juicy gossip for you.

Put them on index cards and go through them as though you are cramming for a foreign language vocabulary test — because you are. Bring your prompt cards to the hospital room. Show them to your friend. Laugh. Make your friend a cancer platitude bingo sheet, with the frozen pasta as the center star. But don’t tell your friends with cancer that they’re doing it wrong.

Even if you have a strong opinion — especially if you have a strong opinion — unless your friend or relative specifically asks, “What should I do, and where should I go, can you recommend a good oncologist, please help me decide, please help me, I don’t know what to do,” don’t say anything.

Just . . . don’t.

——————————————————————————-

Next post: How Honey and Cinnamon Won’t Cure Your Cancer, although it is nice on toast, and what to do when your friend with cancer thinks it will cure their cancer. Hint: don’t insult your friend.

If you are reading this page to help you find an oncologist, pick someone from the American Society of Clinical Oncologists’ awesome find-an-oncologist resource at cancer.net.

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One Comment
  1. Judi Hyde permalink

    Wonderful words of wisdom! Thank you for emphasizing NOT to criticize treatment choices. I especially like the option of “Don’t say anything!” The cancer journey is fraught with so many second guesses, and friends should realize that a patient needs understanding, prayers, support, humor….not medical advice.

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