I was traveling last week. After the stewardess pointed out the exits, the broad shouldered gentleman stuffed into the seat next to the seat I was stuffed into, decided to make some small talk. “What kind of work do you do?”
“I am an oncologist,” I said, and prepared myself for what I knew was coming next. There are only two responses to “I am an oncologist.” The first is, “what’s that?” (The word oncology is code. In the 60s it was politically incorrect to say “cancer”. Even today, patients and clinicians stumble around the word, preferring terms like malignancy, neoplasm, tumor, or just lump. Cancer care was entering the dawn of an era where not everyone was going to die and was soon to become a new specialty, so the word “oncology” was coined to avoid saying the “C word.” But when someone doesn’t know the code word you have to be direct. “I am a cancer doctor.”)
If the second question isn’t asked first, it is asked next. It isn’t really said like a question, it’s more like a statement with a question mark. Sometimes the statement is one of wonderment, but as often as not it is pity. “Why did you decide to be a cancer doctor?”
Cancer is a fascinating disease. It is the closest thing, in this life, that we will get to immortality. Take cancer cells, put them in a test tube and take care of them right and those cells can be grown forever. Take our normal cells and care for them the same way and they will be dead in two weeks. We do research on cells harvested from cancer patients 20 years ago. Besides being mortal our normal cells respect the space of other cells ...