Facing the prospect of cancer alters a person’s life forever. “Being the one to share this diagnosis has altered the course of my life forever,” says Dr Joseph Ng, Senior Consultant, Division of Gynaecologic Oncology, National University Cancer Institute, Singapore.
When mortality stares you in the face, a whirlwind of emotions washes over. Fear and anxiety are intense feelings, especially when patients face an unsettling medical diagnosis like cancer. Working in this field, I see it every day. I have been practising oncology for over three decades and, for me, the ability to connect with my patients is key to being a good physician. With each passing year and each new patient, I pause to reflect on how I communicate, and if I am heard and understood correctly. Because what matters is how my patients feel.
When someone is diagnosed with cancer, they look for answers. That is why getting access to a doctor quickly is so important. Many patients have reduced anxiety if a treatment plan is discussed, defined and agreed upon. It dampens anxiety and makes their cancer journey seem more doable. National cancer centres are well suited to the task of equipping patients to complete this journey with teams of specialists, including psychologists, to help patients navigate not just the difficult moments, but every step of the way. While watching them succumb to the disease is not uncommon, it is having the conviction to better manage their condition, that keeps me motivated.
We often tell patients that we are not fortune tellers or God that guarantee outcomes. Starting out as an obstetrician, the biggest lesson I learned was that life can be unpredictable even when a patient is in good health. I remember an incident when an overjoyed couple was expecting their first child; during labour, both the mother and baby died, leaving the young father all alone. To many, my job appears sad and on many days it absolutely can be. But it is also intimate.
As a healthcare provider, my duty is to be there from the very beginning until the end, journeying through every painful moment along with my patients.
I consider myself fairly sanguine and optimistic. Perhaps, that is why patients call me the “friendly neighbourhood doctor”. No matter how glum the situation appears to be, it is important that we focus on the positives and do what we can. It can only help. Cancer does not have to be a scary word because a worry shared is a worry halved, and I have made it my life’s work to share that load.