Health Magazine

Changing Oncologists: The Cows Coming Home

Posted on the 25 July 2012 by Jean Campbell

cowsJanis Greve, the guest author of Changing Oncologists:The Cows Coming Home, is a professor of autobiography and advisor of English majors at UMass Amherst. She writes about breast cancer and the tribulations of growing older as a woman, hoping to speak honestly about each as she continues to find “survivorhood”—of breast cancer, of life—an ongoing, always humbling adventure. Blog Link:

I thought I was in the presence of an angel. There she was, fit as a fiddle in her white blouse and dark pants, perched on her stool, answering all my questions with such a thoughtful, relaxed air that her hair became tinged with flecks of gold and I loved her. She entertained my questions—didn’t just answer them, but entered their space with me, smiling and getting comfortable, appearing in no hurry to get out, though certainly she had other patients waiting in the wings with room-sized questions of their own.

All the small details leading to her entrance had made me nervous: a parking lot so full that I had to park in front of the dumpster, a windowless waiting room with garish wall art, nurses whose print smocks clashed with the wall art. This is bad, I thought, as I sat in my chair, feeling assaulted, picturing the more attractive waiting room I was forsaking. Why was I here, anyway, after a three-year run, trading windows and a respectable wall sculpture for this rundown place?

When at last Dr. Y walked into the examining room, it was clear. She was the oncologist I’d been longing for. I’d been ready with my love for quite a while, and now I’d set the stage for her to walk into my waiting arms. Little did she know I had seen her participating in local cancer functions. I’d even introduced myself once after a breast cancer panel, approaching her with my scruffy head to divulge the details of my Stage 3 diagnosis. She sparkled with personal interest, friendly and knowledgeable as my daughter and I gathered ever closer, instant acolytes illuminating her greater glow.

Yet I stayed with Dr. X, the oncologist I’d chosen by lottery a year and a half earlier when I got my diagnosis. I remember that moment distinctly. “Would you like Dr. X, Dr. Y, Dr. Z or Dr. B?” the surgeon ticked off, running through her mental rolodex of doctors. My husband and I sat stunned in front of her. We’d had a few days to process the news but were still reeling.“Umm, Dr. X,” I said, choosing a woman’s name that stood out like sturdy bike handles.

And so I got on that bike. Together we went places—scary places, to be sure, sixteen weeks of chemo, but places I had to go to. She was firm, in charge, no-nonsense, and I, shaky and spinning, needed to be told what to do. But there was trouble early on. Once, exhausted by thorny questions surrounding whether I should have radiation after chemo, I placed the question before her during a routine check-in. I wanted her professional opinion of what I should do, hoping she would assume oversight—at least temporarily—of my overall picture. But radiation wasn’t her game.“There’s no clear answer,” she clipped.“We could talk about this ‘till the cows come home.” Then she left to see the next patient.

I cried and raged for a few moments in the privacy of that box-like room as my beleaguered husband offered reassurances. Then I pulled myself together and walked to the chemo room for another day’s infusion.

Maybe she was having an off day. Or maybe I appeared more wrung-out than I thought, and she just couldn’t—for whatever reason—tolerate it. To be fair, I often liked her. She was upbeat and had a sense of humor, and particularly in the routine visits following treatment, chased down my every physical complaint like a hardnosed detective sniffing out clues.  There was even a kind of warmth to her. But as I sat on the examining table and she told me firmly once again to uncross my legs, I felt, as I always did, like a child. Brusque, arch, a tad sarcastic, she both scared me and scarred me a little.

Softer and warmer, Dr. Y. exceeded my expectations during that first appointment. But when I returned for a follow-up, things were different. I had my pick of many parking spaces. The nurses’ smocks were easier on the eyes behind the sliding windows. After my vitals were taken, Dr. Y. appeared almost on the dot. Everything felt suspiciously easy and the lack of having earned her after an arduous climb dulled her sunny entrance. I sat in my chair, slightly depressed, prompting her about the details of our last conversation and listening to reports about cancer drugs I had already heard from Dr. X. The truth that I had suspected all along tugged on me unmistakably: I had turned her not simply into the oncologist I’d been longing for, but the oncologist I’d been longing for All My Life—the answer to all my life’s ills who would meet my every need with nurturing, transcendent, well-targeted knowingness.

Not only that, but switching doctors would disrupt the continuity of my cancer story. Nobody would hold it all, know it all, but me.

As I sat hearing myself say that I wanted her as my new oncologist, doubts whimpered in my head: Was I substituting a hard-working, less popular doctor for a rock star with less experience? Would Dr. Y bring out her own cows eventually?

Already I miss Dr. X. I never loved her—and if I had, she would have put an end to it.

What will I do without her to rebel against? What will become of all my adolescent fury about forced menopause and emerging from cancer with a host of new delicacies, suddenly SO much older? She helped me be angry.

Of course, she was always much more important to me than I ever was to her. I’ve sent her a goodbye card expressing my genuine gratitude, leaving out the wound of the cows. At last I’ve chosen my own doctor. Though it feels like being shot from a canon, catapulting through air, it was time to stop struggling, time to give peace a chance.

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