Cancer and Carrot Cake

I spent the past few days shadowing a radiation oncologist at the Prairie Center, the Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls, South Dakota . I am still trying to decide if the highlight of my stay was the carrot cake we had for dessert on Monday night or watching him administer intraoperative radiation to a breast cancer patient during her lumpectomy. In terms of his Navy experience, he loved having the opportunity to practice general medicine as a flight surgeon for five years after medical school, saying it was “exactly what he needed” before deciding upon a specialty to pursue. He also said that working in the Navy, which is a completely different world of medicine, gave him perspective for his current job that he only could have gotten by experiencing military life firsthand. While moving around and deploying was stressful, he said he’d definitely do it all over again because he was able to independently pursue his medical career and continue the family tradition of serving our country in the military.

Throughout my visit he continually emphasized being “honest and genuine” with patients and approaching each patient’s care as if they were family. He also discussed the importance of fostering a family amongst members of his department, noting that the amount of time medical professionals spend with their coworkers demands a healthy, collaborative working environment. The oncologist talked at length about physician burnout and how our country’s medical education system fails to train physicians how to manage the stressors that are specific to their given specialty. He recognized that his specialty in radiation oncology is particularly emotionally exhausting and told me it’s crucial to have an outlet for stress relief. Through his daily exercise he is able to take time for himself and remember that the work he does is absolutely worth the difficult conversations and long hours. Today’s physicians should eagerly pass this kind of brutally honest advice to the next generation of physicians so we can continue to provide honest and genuine care for all patients.

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View of agricultural South Dakota from my airplane window on my way to enjoy slightly warmer weather in Pensacola, Florida