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iStock_000007262008XSmall[1]“Dr. Weary, my oncologist, called me yesterday,” I tell Dr. Alpha, on my last day of radiation. “Please note that yesterday was Sunday.”

Dr. Alpha nods, waits to hear what I have to say.

I tell him how sad and disturbed Dr. Weary seemed when I nixed chemo. I admitted to Dr. Alpha that the idea of chemo scared me more than death itself. Dr. Alpha listens attentively. I suppose it is this precise trait that connects him with his patients. He does not seem annoyed. He does not seem distracted or bored. His face is alert, with an empathetic expression which makes you think he agrees with you and makes you talk more. But actually, as you reflect on it, you have no idea what he is thinking. Had his profession not been radiation oncology, I suspect he might have been perfectly suited for diplomacy. (Doctors of Osteopathy are trained to listen and to talk to patients from all walks of life, I found out.)

His listening skills, his neutrality, are such that I , at one point, feel emboldened. I blurt out that I think some oncologists have to give chemo just to have a viable practice. How could they make any money writing prescriptions for hormone pills?

Dr. Alpha does not look shocked. He nods.

“Yes,” he admits, that might be true for some oncologists, but not for Dr. Weary. He has a practice with all the patients he can possibly handle.”

I know Dr. Alpha is telling me the truth. Dr Weary is legendary in our city. Stories circulate about how personal and caring he is. He keeps people alive beyond everyone’s expectations. He often sits with his patients while they get their infusion. He called me on a Sunday. Maybe he should get a life I had thought. But learned that he has a young wife and four small children. He has plenty of life to live on a Sunday. Yet he called me because he is conscientious. I feel ashamed.

I inform Dr. Alpha that I missed an earlier appointment with him because I was out of town.

“Did you go somewhere nice?”

“I was be in San Francisco.”

“Business or pleasure?”

“Pleasure. Visiting my youngest daughter. When you get cancer,” I added, ”you start taking your pleasures seriously, “

Again, I immediately feel embarrassed. How incredibly superficial this must sound to a doctor who has a whole waiting room filled with seriously ill patients: The young woman with cancer in her collar bone, the lady with the meat loaf neck, the two young men with colon and prostate cancer. The teenage boy who has a shaved head and who comes in with a different adult every day. Hospital staff? Ward of the State? It does not seem like friends or family accompanying him. Dr. Alpha has patients rolled down to him on their hospital beds. They are kept in a hallway adjacent to the small waiting room. But I can hear groans and moans under heaps of sheets and blankets. Are these patients needing radiation for pain relief? Yet Dr. Alpha is poker faced. If he was tempted to slap me, he did not let on.

Uninterrupted I prattle on .

“And by the way, I hate AstraZeneca! They pat themselves on the back about their cancer drugs which nets them hundreds of millions in profits. At the same time they produce and sell numerous carcinogens. No wonder they don’t  explore pills for prevention or a cure.”

“I don’t like them much either,” Dr. Alpha says.

“During radiation I feel I am doing something about my cancer. Every day.  Now I just have to anxiously feel wait and see.”

He nods

“Yes, that is all normal,” he assures me. “This is how people feel.”

I wondered if this was normal for all radiation patients, or just his? Did life outside his aura of confidence and care seem cold and uncertain, scary? What about patients who had distracted, stress out radiation oncologists who were poor listeners? Was it Dr. Alpha that made radiation seem healing instead of destructive? Or was it, really, the idea that the machine killed cells in your body that you found comforting? Or both?

Aware of the ticking clock, his packed waiting room, of which he did not seem the least aware, I felt the need to get up and go. My six weeks of radiation therapy have come to an end. It has been remarkably easy. No pain. No nausea. No fatigue. But that is how it normally is with breast cancer. Radiation of other parts of your body is a totally different matter.

“Well, I guess I am ready to transfer my emotional dependence from you to Dr. Weary now,” I say.

I wanted to ask him to be my medical oncologist, the cushiest job he would ever have. How much effort would it be for him to call my local pharmacy to fill my hormone prescription and to do my blood work now and then? But I know it is time to bid Dr. Alpha adieu. Upstairs in the next building, I have my scheduled appointment with Dr. Weary and I am already running late.



The sign “Magnolia Cancer Center” does not look as surreal as it has during my previous visits. After all, I do have breast cancer and this center is for me. Although I do not yet have the hollow eyes, the waxy complexion, the bloated body, or the shuffling gate of so many of the other cancer patients I see here. I suppose it is because I have yet to start my treatments.

A large black woman with a gap between her teeth greets me. Her look is that of kindness and concern, but not pity. I must have “new patient” written all over me. Eventually, I ,too, will be ground down by all the chemicals and look like the others: a shadow of former self.

The oncology department’s reception is as spacious as a hotel lobby, and lit by large windows. Someone has obviously dumped a serious amount of capital into this interior. (Although not enough money to allow the purchase of scanners to allow the doctors to email reports to patients.) Yet, the setting is remarkably different from Dr. Weary’s crowded, and a bit shabby, office.

The first person to check me is not Professor Oncology. It is a short, slightly round faced man in a white coat. I assume he is a student at first. Then I notice his  name tag.  He is already a doctor,  a  fellow in oncology, he explains. He seems kind, serious, and gentle. He weighs me in fully dressed and I wish I had kicked off my shoes to reduce my chart by a pound.

Professor Oncology looks Indian and seems too young to be a full Professor and Cancer specialist . Had I met her in a hospital corridor I would have taken her, too,  for a  medical student. Her black straight hair hangs down below her shoulders as does her drab navy skirt which goes inches below her knees and her white coat.  Her face is completely devoid of makeup. Her hands have a pianist’s sinewy, long fingers. Carefully, she feels about my neck, looking for signs of swollen nodes. She feels my breasts, and my armpits. She asks for permission for Dr. Fellow to examine me also.

Dr. Fellow stops with both hands around my neck and looks over at the Professor. He must think that he found something. I tense up, but she shakes her head. I immediately relax as does he.

The professor does not print out an adjuvant online graph like both Dr. Guru and Dr. Weary did. Instead, she  scribbles a few things on the back of a piece of paper. She tells me what I already know: stage 1, node negative, ER/PR + strongly so, HER/2 neg. grade 1 tumor. Like Dr. Weary, she is a bit baffled by my relatively high oncodx score.  It is 23. But she is still convinced that chemo would only improve my odds by 2%.  The professor, more than any of the others, stress the toxicity of chemo therapy: Leukemia, heart problems, bone marrow loss, risk for other infections.

Unlike, Dr. Weary, she does not agonize even a bit about skipping chemo. To my immense relief, she seems to have no doubts. She does not wring her hands, does not stand up only to abruptly sit down.

She draws up a five-year plan for hormone therapy: five years on Tamoxifen.  Or, she suggest,  we can do 21/2 years  and then switch to Arimidex, an aromatase inhibitor. I look aghast. “Oh well, Tamoxifen then,”  she shrugs. She does not ask what I have against Arimidex. She gives me an appointment for two months later when radiation will, supposedly, be over. She does not explain why I can not be on hormone blockers while on radiation. She does not bring up insufficient margins. I do not tell her about Dr. Alpha other than to mention that I will have radiation at a hospital closer to home.


Annoying People in Oncologist’s Waiting Room

November 21, 2009

In Dr. Weary’s waiting room, I begin to fill in endless health questions on a clumsy electronic gadget. It allows him to transfer everything directly to a computer without errors, I suppose. But the design of the gadget is decidedly more  Soviet era style  than a modern American invention. The waiting room is empty except […]

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