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What Cancer?

I love to tell people that I have the best job in the world— I get to make a difference in the lives of heroes.



The following essay by Jeffrey F. Patton, MD, is adapted from The Big Casino: America’s Best Cancer Doctors Share Their Most Powerful Stories, which was coedited by Stan Winokur, MD, and Vincent Coppola and published in May 2014. The book is available on Amazon.com and thebigcasino.org.

If they are honest, most oncologists who’ve practiced medicine for more than 15 years will tell you they’ve learned much more from their patients than their patients have learned from them. The life lessons I’ve learned from treating this complicated, resilient, and often cruel disease are many. Cancer can be devastating; the patients and their families are true heroes.

I love to tell people that I have the best job in the world—I get to make a difference in the lives of heroes. I’ve learned about strength, faith, and resilience from my patients. I’ve learned about humility and putting others first. I’ve learned what love really means.

One of my first patients, Deb, was a well-to-do, elegant lady who, for reasons I will never know, presented with a grossly neglected breast cancer. She didn’t seek medical attention until a very large pleural effusion made it almost impossible for her to breathe. We discussed treatment options. She was so private she didn’t want anyone to know she was sick and expressed a strong desire not to lose her hair. Her first treatment regimen resulted in a complete response. She remained on therapy for 2 years, and we, with trepidation, decided upon a chemotherapy holiday.

Living a Full Life

Deb remained in remission for another 2 years. During her frequent visits to the office, she made sure everyone else felt as good as possible. Always dressed to the nines, Deb presented a perfect picture of health. Her positive and confident attitude exuded the question, “What cancer?”

She was an inspiration to patients and staff. During her years of therapy and progression-free survival, she saw both her kids graduate from college and attended the wedding of her oldest child (with a full head of hair). Deb’s focus was always on living, not on having cancer. At times, all of us have a difficult time focusing on the important things in life—and we don’t have cancer. I see many patients focus all their energy on their cancer. Deb had it right. She ended up living 8 years with cancer.


Life is about living. Those of us who have chosen oncology as a profession have been given a rare gift: We learn about living from heroes who are often dying.
— Jeffrey F. Patton, MD

Nancy, another inspirational patient, was diagnosed with breast cancer with metastasis to the bones. In her 70s, gracious and deeply religious, Nancy continued to play the piano at her church every Sunday. She had the ultimate “put others first” philosophy. Within minutes in any discussion, she’d quickly make sure that the conversation was as much about you and your concerns, rather than focused solely on her and her battle with cancer.

Nancy had a remarkable journey with cancer for 10 years.

At each turn of the battle, when the news was favorable, she gave thanks to God and then to her caregivers. It never occurred to her to put herself or her personal battle first. I will never forget our final conversation. As we discussed end-of-life choices, I asked if she had any questions. Instead of asking questions, she said simply, “You have been such a great doctor.” I could not contain my tears. Her loving husband and two daughters joined me in shedding tears. Nancy was a gracious lady to the very end.

Putting Others First

The life lessons I’ve learned throughout my medical training and patient care have served me very well. I find that compassion, humility, putting others first, as well as plain, easy-to-understand communication are exactly what is needed to succeed in the world at large.

Life is about living. Those of us who have chosen oncology as a profession have been given a rare gift: We learn about living from heroes who are often dying. ■



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