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Thursday, December 16, 2010

It all starts with a nodule...

We are taught by life to greet people with courtesy; always smile and say something nice, always ask how people are doing. You enter a sick patient's room on the morning rounds and say something like: "Hello sir, how are we doing today?", and hope for some optimism and a smile in return. Try doing that on the oncology wards. On a few of my first patient visits on the oncology floor, I was caught off guard by a 38 year old patient with a body torn up, on the inside, by a uterine cancer. Now in the terminal stages of her disease, N. answered my question in a way I was never ready to handle.
- Me, entering the room for the first time, smiling: "How are you today Mrs. [...] ?"
- Her, stating the obvious, pointing at her distended, asymmetric, diseased abdomen: "Well, how do you think I'm doing?"
Realizing the retrospective absurdity of my question to a woman with a mass the size of a basketball inside her, and many other little ones scattered around her frail and broken body, I froze for a second, and nodded, with my stupid, embarrased smile still stuck to my face, and proceeded to interview and examine her, gathering a few pieces of information to write my stupid little note in her chart.
How? How can you be pleasant to a dying person? I'm still learning here... perhaps learning that oncology is the single most impossible specialty for me to work in. Oncology, cancer, that indiscriminate, slow killer that catches persons and tosses their bodies around for seeming ages.
Cancer means you see your patient on Friday and think he's doing a bit better:
- Mr. H, a nice and unfortunate old man: "Thank you doctor for coming to see me, it makes me stronger"
and then you go away for the weekend and on Monday you hear the news that Mr. H passed away on Saturday, his son's wedding day. They tell you that Mr. H's son had been pushing since thursday for a discharge so that his father can die in his hometown, and to kindle a glimmer of hope that his father would get a chance to see his son get married, even if he has to feel this fatherly pride in a wheelchair. No such luck.

It's too much for me to handle. Too much to see this losing battle day in day out, too much to see so much suffering. Too much to see so much harm coming from what started as a small nodule, a small blip on a chest radiograph... Not for me.