Three Pieces of Advice from a Surgical Oncologist When it Comes to CancerheadingContent

Posted on March 16, 2017

image of cancer magnifiedCancer can be a devastating diagnosis. As a fellowship-trained surgical oncologist, I take great pride in helping provide support to my patients and their families. One of the most important parts of my job is not only to diagnose and treat the cancer, but also to guide my patient and their family through this life altering diagnosis. I always give my patients three specific pieces of advice.

Firstly, we may have found the cancer, but the cancer doesn’t know that we have found it. Just because we found it, doesn’t mean that it will all of a sudden start becoming more aggressive. And because we have found it doesn’t mean that we need to rush into a treatment haphazardly. It is more important to do the RIGHT thing, in the RIGHT time, rather than do the right thing by accident. Specifically, I am referring to treatment. Once we have identified the cancer, we will need to perform a series of testing to know the extent of the disease – also referred to as the STAGE of the cancer. These tests will take time to complete.  It is more important to know the extent of the cancer prior to rushing into treatment.

Overall, it is best to speak to your oncologist to know when timing is important. There are some cancers in which days and weeks are significant in treatment, whereas there are other cancers where months and years matter in the treatment planning.

Secondly, when examining your body for changes, such as breast self-exams or oral cancer exams, it is important to perform these self-exams periodically. If we were to look at our grass in our front lawn every day, we wouldn’t see it grow. However, if I looked at the grass today and then two weeks from now I would see the growth and the need to cut the grass. Similarly, if we examined our mouths for cancer, and we looked for changes daily, we wouldn’t notice a new lesion or discoloration, but if we did this once a month, we might notice changes much more easily. Breast examinations for breast cancer are similar. If we performed self-exams daily, we wouldn’t be able to identify a new nodule or lump, whereas if we perform the self-exams once a month, we may notice differences better. It is not important to know what cancer looks or feels like. It is more important to know what a CHANGE for your body is and tell your oncologist about this.

Thirdly, there are times when we can provide successful treatments for the cancer. As a surgeon, I am lucky to be able to provide that amazing news at times. Other times, I am not.  Even when I am able to give such great news to a patient that their cancer is in remission, I still insist that cancer is a lifestyle change. Having a support system is important. Whether that support system is your family or a friend, you will need others in your lives. It is important to be open about your diagnosis. I always encourage my patients to bring their families to their appointments. Dealing with cancer is a family endeavor.

There is a quote that I always reference. This comes from a collection of essays written by cancer survivors, After the Diagnosis: Medullary Thyroid Cancer Memoirs by William Kenly. “Cancer changes people.  It sculpts us into someone who understands more deeply, hurts more often, appreciates more quickly, cries more easily, hopes more desperately, loves more openly, and lives more passionately.” Cancer patients are truly the most amazing people I have ever met and I really feel privileged to be a part of their care.