For as long as I can remember I always had a PLAN. Since I was a little girl, I told everyone who asked what I wanted to be when I grew up that I was going to be a doctor. I just knew it. That plan was backed by determination and an obscene amount of hard work and sacrifice.
That plan NEVER included getting cancer, taking a year off school and watching my peers move on without me. I most certainly hadn’t made time for that – but it found me – right in the middle of medical school when I was 24. Then the PLAN became very simple. Survive.
As a competitive gymnast for most of my life, I had learned to live with aches and pains and to challenge my body to withstand pressures anyone but a gymnast might think insane. For that reason, it came as no surprise that I managed to rationalize all my symptoms. Fatigue? No problem – I just took finals. The bruises all over my legs? No big deal – must be the new puppy. The fever, nausea and vomiting? It’s ok – I must have the flu.
As it turns out, 2nd year medical students aren’t so great at self-diagnosis. That “flu” turned out to be APL (acute promyelocytic leukemia) and the next 3 weeks were a blur of tests and procedures, fevers, and chemotherapy. At no point did I consider NOT going back to medical school – ok except the day I swore I was dropping out to become a patient advocate because who leaves a cancer patient in a bed in the radiology hallway alone without a call button??! It was also during this time that a series of coincidences brought Andrew McMahon into my life and I will forever be grateful for the kindness and understanding he and his family offered while my life was upside down.
Thankfully the chemo worked, I went into remission, managed to complete 2 years of maintenance therapy, and was sent off into the survivorship deep end without a compass, road map, or swim lessons. That sucked. Did I know anyone else who had been through this? Nope. Did I have any friends who understood I wasn’t “fine” just because the cancer was gone and treatment was over? Nope. I was supposed to find a “new normal.” Ok, cool. Here I was without a plan for the first time.
For two years my oncologist subtly tried to steer me into oncology. He thought my experience would be of value to patients with cancer. I was pretty sure he had lost his mind. Why in the world would I want a daily reminder of my mortality? How was I supposed to move on if I had to be surrounded by cancer every day? I stubbornly went back to school committed to becoming an orthopedic surgeon. While I’m sure I would have made a damn good surgeon, life had other plans for me.
My oncologist must have had a crystal ball or ability to see the future because here I am – an oncologist at a world-famous cancer center and I’m 100% certain I’ve found my purpose. While I no longer believe everything “happens for a reason,” having cancer led me to the path I’m on. I truly can’t imagine feeling as fulfilled doing other work, but I must admit it’s hard some days and just when you think cancer is way in the rear view, survivorship throws you a curveball.
As a lymphoma specialist, I have the privilege of caring for people young and old, but it’s taking care of my young adult patients that really makes me come alive. I see a little of myself in every one of them. No one believes you when you say the port flush makes you nauseous? Oh, I do. I remember that well. “It’s just hair. It’ll come back.” Great. Thank you – what am I supposed to do in the meantime to still feel like me? I feel fortunate to be able to empathize and build the best support network around my patients as I can. If it weren’t for my experience I wouldn’t truly understand or know what it feels like to move from treatment into survivorship. I wouldn’t have the appreciation for the life differences in the “before” and “after.”
The Dear Jack Foundation has been a very personal cause for me since when it was merely an idea, and I wholeheartedly stand by its mission. No one with cancer should EVER feel alone or like they don’t know where their resources are. Community is everything and raising awareness about the uniqueness of having cancer as an adolescent or young adult is SO important.
I strive to make a fraction of the impact the Dear Jack Foundation does in my own way every day by ensuring none of my patients feel like they’re trying to navigate the deep end alone. I’ve been there and I’ll jump in with you. Both feet. Every time.
AYA Cancer Survivor, Oncologist, and Dear Jack Board Member