Cancer, My Catalyst

How it shaped my personality as a physician.

By Dr. Neha Sharma

I sat in the chair in silence. It was supposed to be a routine post operative follow up. I was set to embark on my journey to become a doctor in a few months. I had ambitious aspirations for my future. At that moment, however, the journey seemed distant and the aspirations, unattainable. I really hoped that my doctor was mistaken. My mother did not have a good understanding of the English language and couldn’t fully comprehend the disclosure. The desperate look in her eyes demanded answers. My sister stood beside me in shock, trying her best to dispute tears.

A few minutes prior to the news, I had told my doctor about my acceptance to medical school. He seemed ecstatic yet disheartened. After some small talk, he sat down beside me and said “I have some news. The pathologist called and it’s cancer.”

After I fully absorbed the initial jolt, I somehow found the strength to analyze the situation at hand. Ultimately, with a positive outlook, I overcame all obstacles and conquered all challenges. Today, I am a proud cancer survivor.

Contending cancer while tackling the minutiae of medical school was definitely a tedious task. Despite the hardships, however, cancer actually became my catalyst. It taught me to live life to the fullest and also shaped my personality as a physician.

Being a patient and a medical student at the same time granted me an extremely intriguing perspective towards medicine. I dealt with a myriad of healthcare providers. Most were routine but a few were highly notable.

I still remember the physician that comforted my mother and assuaged her concerns. She held my mother’s hand and thoroughly explained my course of care. When my mother cried, she cried. That physician taught me that it was acceptable for physicians to express emotions. Today, I do not hesitate to express my feelings in front of my patients and their families.

I also do not wear a white coat. When my surgeon rounded on me in the morning after my procedure, she was without a white coat. To a young girl, she appeared relatable. The intimidating barrier of the coat was lifted and I felt comfortable in her presence. She did not need the coat to assert her title. Her contagious confidence and humble demeanor endorsed her capabilities. She taught me that a physician’s persona extends beyond the conventional coat.

When I was admitted in the hospital, the most crucial thing to me was information. My family and I had numerous questions. Some questions were redundant and some were plain absurd. In retrospect, the root of most questions was angst and anxiety. When my physician took the time to answer those questions in detail, it was therapeutic in a way. Her poise was admirable and it provided relief to my nervous parents. Today, when I am bombarded with questions from a patient or a fearful family, I make sure to exercise diligence and patience.

The day I learned about my cancer diagnosis was probably the toughest day of my life. Strangely, it was also the most memorable. Surviving cancer made me appreciate life and awarded me a positive attitude. It also curated my career in medicine and made me a better physician.

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