Reflections on being an Oncologist
Cancer begins and ends with people. In the midst of scientific abstraction, it is sometimes possible to forget this one basic fact. Doctors treat diseases, but they also treat people, and this precondition of their professional existence sometimes pulls them in two directions at once. June Goodfield
Soon after finishing high school, I probably did not sign up for a career that I would be pulled apart, sometimes pitted with emotions but with a dash of hope, but I am glad I chose to be an oncologist and continue to enjoy the honor and the rare privilege to care for persons living and diagnosed with cancer.
My journey, which started three years ago when I embarked on my training as an oncologist in a state university hospital in China, continues to challenge me, inspire me, humble me, and, more importantly, make me human first, then an oncologist.
Oncology as a specialty in medicine requires one to be above and beyond the intricacies of medical science and be constantly up to date with the cutting-edge cancer treatments, burgeoning drug discoveries, and clinical trials that lead to newer and effective treatment.
It also requires one to be conversant with the not-so-scientific part, which includes the cost of care and its associated distress, the cultural factors affecting treatment choices, population demographics and genetic nuances, wealth and poverty gaps, and health systems of different countries-which are all key social determinants of health.
Skills or Talents You Need to Be an Oncologist
Medical school and a good post-graduate training program can qualify you as an oncologist and grant you a license to practice. However, invaluable skills, some of which are not taught in class, are required to be a good oncologist. These include the following.
Communication skill is essential for almost any professional, but even more so for the oncologist. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that many oncologists often lack these skills. (1)
Oncologists face particular challenges when it comes to communicating with patients. The treatment options and the side effects are complex. Patients are at a time of crisis in their lives. Often, communication involves giving patients bad news. In the midst of all these, dealing with patients' emotions is critical.
The starting place for effective communication is effective listening. "Active listening is listening with all of one's senses," says physician communication expert Kenneth H. Cohn, MD, MBA, FACS. "It's listening with one's eyes and ears. Only 8% of communication is related to content—the rest pertains to body language and tone of voice." A practicing surgeon and a consultant, Cohn is the author of Better Communication for Better Care and Collaborate for Success! (2)
Waiting for a diagnosis may be one of the most vulnerable times in a person's life, and it would befit the occasion if an oncologist approached it as such. Rather than coming in and giving an indifferent clinical diagnosis, some of the best oncologists show a mix of kindness, compassion, and empathy when delivering the news. At the same time, however, they display calm confidence that the patient is in the best hands. All of these interpersonal skills can help in putting patients at greater ease.
As with most medical professionals, oncologists work with a team of people. Nurses, therapists, and other specialists must work together, and everyone must be willing to listen to the opinions of others to make a patient well.
But collaboration goes far beyond this. The patient is also part of this team, and an oncologist should value the patient's opinion when it comes to her care. Asking questions about choices for treatment can give the patient some control — or at least the feeling of control — over their own life during a time when many patients may feel powerless.
Of course, medical skills are essential to being a successful oncologist. We must first be able to take all the information presented to you and determine the patient's type and stage of cancer. We then determine the best form of treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and supportive treatments. These are all complementary and alternative therapies that improve a person's quality of life during treatment.
Gratitude and honor
I want to close with gratitude. The road to my career has been tumultuous, deferred, and full of detours. It's not what I envisioned when I embarked upon this journey; however, if it weren't for where I've been, I wouldn't be where I am.
I'm reminded of the words from poet Robert frost: the road less traveled; "two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled and that has made all the difference."
1. Communication: What Do Patients Want and Need? Journal of Oncology Practice. 2008;4(5):249-53.
2. Developing Effective Communication Skills. Journal of Oncology Practice. 2007;3(6):314-7.
About the Author
Dr. Omar Abdihamid is a Clinical Oncologist. He is passionate about Global Oncology and cancer care in low- and middle-income countries, particularly cancer awareness and patient education. His main areas of interest are Gastrointestinal cancers, Breast Cancer, Lung, Head and neck, and Genitourinary Cancers. Dr. Omar has a keen interest in cancer research and has published multiple SCI publications in peer-reviewed journals. He is also an editor and a reviewer for several cancer journals