My oncologist and I

choosedocEarly in July I have an appointment with my oncologist. She is younger than I, but more and more people are these days. Her father is an extremely well-respected doctor in his field, a longtime member of the Israeli medical elite. I don’t think she rode on his coattails throughout her training, but there is something of the aura of the elite that hovers around her. She and I do not have a natural affinity, but we have mutual respect.

I had no idea of how to choose an oncologist. The way it worked was this: After the biopsy confirmed the diagnosis my family doctor referred me to a surgeon. I didn’t really care who the surgeon would be because I knew what procedure I would have, and it was a pretty standard one. A day after my mastectomy, the hospital’s breast cancer nurse came to talk to me about, among many other things, choosing an oncologist.

By the way, a word about breast cancer nurses. I’ve come in contact with two, at two different hospitals, and could not be more impressed. Both had advanced nursing degrees, as well as a doctorate. Both were knowledgeable, caring, funny, supportive, respectful of my level of knowledge, and empowering. They gave me all the time I wanted, provided multiple ways of getting in touch with them, and “followed” me as long as I needed. I am confident that even today, years after my last contact with either of them, I could call either one and get whatever I need. Breast cancer nurses rock, if these two are anything to go by!

So the BCA nurse came to my room on the post-operative unit. When she arrived, a couple of friends were at my bedside, both of them nurses at the same hospital. She stayed and exchanged pleasantries with them for a few minutes, and they left to go to work. Then she told me her story.

This particular BCA nurse had had breast cancer herself and at that time was NED (no evidence of disease). She told me the story of how she had felt and reacted, not too much detail, but enough to help me feel more comfortable. We had a good connection. She gave me a lot of new information that day, and she gave it to me in a way that I could take in. One of the nicest things about her, was that she did not appear to mind pausing while I made notes, considered what she had said, formulated questions.

We got to the part about choosing an oncologist. She asked me what I wanted in an oncologist and we talked about that for a bit. She told me that she could think of two oncos who would fit: one was a professor and head of department, the other a senior attending at a very young age. In terms of professional skill, she said, they were pretty much equals. I asked if either had a sense of humor. She laughed and told me to stay far, far away from the professor. So I chose the other one.

I have always had the option of switching to a different onco, and I still have that option, but so far feel no need to go shopping for another one. We are not people who would hang out together, but that’s fine; this is not the nature of our relationship. She is quite decidedly non-religious, and I am quite decidedly a religious woman. Far from being a source of conflict, this has led to some fascinating conversations during the exam. I still remember a great exchange of ideas about expressing solidarity with the poor and marginalized of society. Once I got over the idea of talking about such things while I was wearing only underpants (gowns are often not provided for exams here), it was a really good exchange.

Also, she has the courtesy to laugh at the feeblest of my jokes. What more could I ask for?


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30 Responses

  1. dglassme says:

    It’s just you talking out loud.

  2. katherinembc says:

    My oncologist is a good listener and doesn’t rush me. She’s also good at explaining things.


  3. Wow, this is timely. I just parted ways with my oncologist. I’m glad you’re satisfied with yours and it’s a bonus for sure when any doctor has a sense of humor that gels with yours. Terrific post.

  4. Being able to laugh with your doctor while vulnerable in one’s underpants is so important! I am glad that you have found a rapport with your oncologist.

  5. thanks for this! I love my oncologist’s sense of humor and willingness to play well with other oncologists I consult with. It’s nice to know I’m a human and not just a number to him. Expertise trumps bedside manner, so that’s why I consult with another oncologist. I have the best of both worlds, I think.

    • Knot Telling says:

      In this country, oncology is practiced by protocol and treatment decisions are made by committee. I would get the same treatment from anyone, so for me the relationship becomes most important. If I am comfortable enough to be open with my onco, and she is respectful enough to listen to my concerns then I know that the best information will be brought into the equation.

      In countries where medical practice is more independent, I’m sure you are right!

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  6. My oncologist is good at forming an emotional connection. I’m certain not all oncologists do the same, but I appreciate his compassion. I know he cares, and I know he is capable. So even if we aren’t exactly aligned on everything – I think like you and yours, it’s a good fit. ~Catherine

  7. bethgainer says:

    What a great post! You remind us that we don’t have to be best pals with our doctor for a doctor-patient relationship to work. Also, I love your nurse. My experiences with the nurses is similar to yours. My oncology nurse rocked!

  8. What more indeed? My experience with specialists is that they are a tight-assed bunch if you’ll excuse my English. They can be very clinical and forget they are dealing with a real live human being. I have a family doctor who is fabulous and we laugh a lot together. I have a specialist who can’t get through the exam fast enough. This guy needs a “Tickle Me Elmo”!


    • Knot Telling says:

      I always consider it a plus if a specialist remembers that I more than the organ or disease they are there to treat.

      As always, thank you so much for reading and commenting, Nelson.

  9. Now that I’ve re-entered the oncology space I’m not quite sure if my former oncologist is going to work this time around. Like you, it’s unlikely we’d be friends. But what I do have is great respect for his knowledge and experience. For now that is what matters for me: the right rx, at the right time.

    I’ve been mulling this issue and very much appreciate your post today.

    Thanks so much,

    PS – I love advanced practice nurses. I was followed by one in the survivorship clinic.

    • Knot Telling says:

      Like so many others, Jody, I’m deeply sorry that you are once again “in the oncology space”.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      Also – you have a survivorship clinic? Wow!

  10. mariaratliff says:


    Not only was she placed in your life when you needed someone with her expertise…maybe you were placed in her life for the same reason. I believe our life encounters are not coincidence. I believe they are Divinely orchestrated. 😉


  11. My first oncologist office provided those little paper half-gowns. Like a paper shirt, with no buttons. They are one-size-fits-all, and I am not. The exam shirts were not long enough, and did not reach around enough, for me to feel adequately covered at all. I regularly “Hulked-out” of my paper ensemble, to be left with two halves; one on each arm.

    When I decided I was through with the inadequate paper bags with arm-holes, I made myself a fabric one, that I could take with me and then launder for myself at home. My dear oncologist was amused with it. He was more amused when I tea-stained the color to make it “dirty pink” after my stage IV diagnosis.

    I’ve had to change oncologists once, without notice, thanks to my insurance company. I’m still not completely sold on my choice and direction, six months into the year. I hope yours continues to be a good fit.

    • Knot Telling says:

      Changing like that must have been a real shock! I hope it does work out.

      When I had radiation they didn’t offer anything for cover, but they told me I could bring in a sheet or something to cover the little bit of my chest that was not being treated. I did that at first, but soon just gave it up as more trouble than it was worth.

      I’ve become used to the gownless exams, more or less. In the greater scheme of things–for me, anyway–it has become a non-issue. Your mileage may vary, as they used to say. 😉

  12. Paula says:

    Great post KT. My oncologist is a little stiff for me, but he’s ok, so I’ll stick with him. It would be nice if he had a sense of humor and wasn’t in a hurry though.

  13. well, here’s a little irony for you about choosing an oncologist. I was a hospice nurse for nearly 30 years. I had many wonderful experiences working with a particular oncologist; if the patient needed changes in pain management or any other crisis arose, he always conveyed such caring, and regarded the hospice team, especially the nurses, as equals , always appreciative of our observations and interventions, thanked us, and never forgot to ask how the patients’ families were doing. how could I have know that all this time later, I would be choosing an oncologist who specialized in breast cancer, that I hoped it could be him, and that within seconds of my request to my breast surgeon and her text to him, I was fortunate enough have him on my team. he remembered me, called me at home that night, and told me how sorry he was, but that he was going to do all he could to take good care of me. he asked about hugh, and our son and daughter. the last 30 years have not always been kind to physicians- they have had to jump through some pretty narrow and high hoops. but it is such a comfort to find that dr. “A” has stayed true to his mission of such compassionate and competent care for both patients ands their families – and he has a marvelous sense of humor! thank you, KT – I loved this post and enjoyed all the other comments as well.

    love, XO

    Karen, TC

    • Knot Telling says:

      Hello, Karen, and thank you for sharing that touching story. He sounds wonderful… and you must be an incredible person to have been a hospice nurse for thirty years!

  14. Maxine D says:

    An interesting discussion – I have recently been ‘allocated’ a Gynaecologist (by the public health system) and thankfully found her to be a compassionate, caring person who was also very clear with her explanations, and why she recommended which procedure, What a relief. Thankfully cancer is not involved, but my dignity was, nds it was not ‘trashed’ as it has been on occasion in the past.
    Prayers and blessings

    • Knot Telling says:

      I’m so glad that you emerged from the appointment with your dignity intact. That is no small thing! Isn’t it great when there’s a good fit with a doctor?

  1. 30 June, 2013

    […] oncologist and patient – some good, some not so good- this time it’s the turn of Knot Telling to share her experience. Eileen also picks up the theme of the doctor-patient relationship in her […]

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