What It's Like to Be a Cancer Physician in America

Jennifer L. Lycette, MD


May 25, 2022

"We only want to hear positive information."

"Don't tell him about his prognosis."

"We don't want to hear any doom or gloom."

This is what it's like to be a cancer physician in America.

As a medical oncologist, I spend much of my time helping people navigate the (for many) uncharted waters of uncertainty and bad news. Even and especially when it's not what people want to hear.

But over the past 2 years, the amount of misinformation and disinformation I have to refute and debunk in order to even get to my treatment recommendations seems to be escalating.

As Dr Eve Bloomgarden and Dr Avital O'Glasser write on the Women In Medicine Summit blog, since the COVID-19 pandemic, physicians have become Cassandras. (As in, the Cassandra of Greek mythology who had the gift of prophecy but was cursed to never be believed.)

"Cassandra was gaslighted…Are we destined for the same fate…? And what does this mean for society, if the truth is so fervently denied. Do we succumb to misinformation, let the wool cover our collective eyes, take the easy path?"

A larger and larger segment of our society would rather deny science, deny experts, deny physicians. Our culture of exceptionalism has set the stage. Belief in alternative theories is less distressing than facing the truth of our mortal condition — as Maimonides described it centuries ago, our inherent "frailty of matter."

But disease is no stranger to physicians and nurses. We inhabit its world every day. We witness the frailty of the human condition, and we grasp onto it with all our might and try to keep it tethered to this earth. Even though we know in the end, while we can sometimes stave off death, we ultimately cannot win.

The truth is that the only underlying condition required to be at risk of illness and death is one we all share: being human.

To talk about this openly in our culture causes many to experience cognitive and existential distress. It goes against our "American values" to admit there's something we cannot power our way through. Therefore, those with illness are labeled as somehow flawed.

The appeal of the flaw narrative is that it allows us to pretend we have control of our fate. That we can overpower disease. That illness is a sign of weakness, and therefore if we are "strong," we are not at risk.

But ultimately, none of these narratives can change the universal story of humanity — that we are mortal beings.

Doctors and nurses do not deserve to be blamed for the underlying condition of our inherent mortality of existence. But we were already used to it, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

We strive to do everything we can to preserve the health of our patients for as long as humanly possible. But we, too, are only human.

Like Cassandra, we can only see and share the truth. We cannot change it, no matter how some may curse us for it.

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About Dr Jennifer Lycette
Jennifer L. Lycette, MD, is a rural community hematologist-oncologist, mom of three, and recovering perfectionist who's writing her way back from physician burnout, one word at a time. Her essays have been published in The Intima, The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, JAMA Oncology, Journal of Clinical Oncology, The ASCO Post, and more. Connect with her on Twitter @JL_Lycette or her website.


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