The hospital café was a long walk from our classroom, so, as a group, some of us from the summer program walked there together for lunch. I was out front, with earbuds in, not paying attention, when I felt a slight tap on my shoulder. I turned to see an elderly woman. She was bent over and looked weary and lonely. I took out my earbuds and said, “Excuse me?”
She said, “I’m a veteran.” She showed me her badge. “Can you take me to get some food? I don’t have any money.” She said that after she ate, she
Hmmm. Swim with dolphins? Eat a steaming bowl of spaghetti? Dance with the sun on my face? Yes. All of those, I think to myself. But, no. They’re not the options on offer, not any more. My interrogator’s nose is waiting. His grey eyes assess me from under folded lids.
I could smell the greasy, fast food before I even reached for the door. As I entered the exam room, I caught her rummaging through her McDonald’s bag, then she quickly looked up with a big grin on her face. Without even a pause, she shoved a french fry in her mouth and exclaimed “Hi, Dr. Eisenberg!” Her T-shirt was taut over her pregnant belly, slightly riding up to reveal her chocolaty, smooth skin.
Sigh, I had reminded her before
Postsurgical analysis of my biopsies indicated that the cancer had grown just into my intestinal wall. Pathology said it was a genetically aggressive type, but no cancer cells were found in the lymph nodes that were removed along with much of my descending colon. In addition, no metastases were found during either surgical inspection or imaging.
So, to proceed with chemotherapy or not? There was no evidence the cancer was loose in my body or already in my liver, but there could be no proof it wasn’t. And if
“It’s your patient. What would you like to do?” my attending asked. This question was not meant simply as a test of my knowledge; I was expected to give my opinion as a valued member of the team. A requirement for fourth-year medical students, my acting internship was more “intern” than “acting.” I worked alongside residents on the inpatient medicine service, calling consults, updating families and placing orders. There was one difference, however: all of my orders required an MD’s signature.
Buoyed by this safety net, I got a taste of the thrilling yet overwhelming influence
My first chemo was a year ago today. It had been scheduled to start eight months earlier, when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, but I chose a different path and had hoped to avoid chemo altogether. My oncologist had initially recommended four months of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before surgery, but he also mentioned that I qualified for a clinical trial that would use a pill for six months to cut off its estrogen supply.
I thought it would be easier than it was, but it was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make. Ma had been declining mentally and physically for the previous several years. This once-feisty woman–who’d been able to add up her grocery bill to the penny in her head and work seven days a week at a local children’s store while still maintaining an eat-off-the-floor home–had become a shadow of herself. Ma barely ate, rarely wore anything but an old white t-shirt and a pair of torn underwear, and sometimes at night wandered the halls of the apartment building where