Do You Read Cancer?

My patient sat across from me and said “You are the expert.” My mind began a long walk on a desert land, nothing as far as the eye could see. I reached a tree and sat down for a little to rest. Then stood up and continued walking. A nomad with a keen eye in the desert searching for water and life, finding answers as he continues his journey. I wonder how much my patients actually think I know about cancer. The way I see it, it’s the time I sat in the tree to rest, where the knowledge I have helps them navigate difficult choices. Science is the compass I hold, like the North Star shedding light giving direction to where I go next, this decision I make under the tree.

Here he was faced with his cancer returning it was his second visit and it was a short interval between the time I had told him and his return to see me. I gave him time since I broke the news in such a short time. My style is to stagger the information and give patients some time to receive the news, absorb the facts, grieve their health, rest, pick themselves up, and come back to fight. This is where I sit in the shade of the tree and conjure up a plan focused on where I am going to head out next. My thoughts questioned, “I am the expert?” But the desert is vast.

Science helps me read cancer. How do you explain that to the mind that eagerly awaits your decision to help them? So I tried, I asked him to imagine an alien land where you met the natives and you could not speak the language and you are trying to make sense of what they are saying to you. He looked at me and said “you understand this more than I do”. I did have a plan for how to treat him; I always have something I can offer to patients who pick themselves up. Some patients interpret this as me giving them hope. I, on the other hand, see this as their success in how they refused to fail. Like the nomad who looks up at the stars and knows where he will go next, I use what I know to guide them across the dangers of the terrain that they are being forced to navigate.

Fear is very real to patients. I saw that today in his eyes. What’s next? What’s up your sleeve Mo? I take refuge in the shade of the tree that will offer a moment to contemplate. The uncertainty of it all, yet the nomad finds his way to an oasis almost every time. Armed with his knowledge of the stars and the understanding of the hazards of the desert, using his patience, his wisdom and his passion he leaves the shade of the tree, pushing forward on his journey to find that which will quench his thirst. A powerful drive coupled to an amazing will of a patient who stands up when the cancer thinks it has succeeded.



I walked into the room and I could see that the surgeon who had seen my patient before me had already relayed the bad news. The cancer was back. The weight of this news still not complete in her mind. How could it be? She had been cancer free for so long. She had battled it once, and now she is being asked to do that again. On seeing me and my somber expression, she burst into tears. The weight of the situation finally reaching her and she gave in to her emotions.

This cannot be happening. I thanked the surgeon for meticulously working out the plan for me as the patient relayed to me what she was to do. I could be a little lost in this struggle with the patient for a change. Sometimes depending on my day and where I am at I let myself be sucked in. It was that kind of day where I was just as disappointed at the appearance of the cancer that I identified with this person, where I was struggling with many things in side of me and I just could not say much to her.  

I reached out to my patient as her tears flowed before me. I told her not to worry, that we would walk beside her on this journey today. Step by step. That it was our responsibility to see her through this to let us worry for her as I tried to help ease her suffering. The easiest thing to do was give her a pain pill, and that brought her around to a better place. I have often marveled at the little things that calm us when we are stressed. The soft touch of a hand, the forgiveness from a friend or the comforting words of a caring loved one.

And she replied “I know you will Mo.”

With the faith she had in me, and the passion in her eyes to live, we began our battle.