Your medical oncologist will be a critical part of your care team not only during active treatment but also for five to 10 years afterward.
In my case, Dr. Ross is the one who bears primary responsibility for managing my treatment plan. He:
- guides the types and frequency of my exams (in partnership with my breast surgeon);
- helps me interpret the test results;
- shares research findings with me as we make survivorship-related decisions together, and;
- oversees important blood work twice annually to check for tumor markers.
Collectively these are all done to make sure there aren’t any stubborn cancer cells that either went undetected in the sentinel node biopsy, or are otherwise trying to come back.
Here’s what to look for before you choose your oncologist:
Exemplary training should be a given, so I’m skipping that and going straight to personality attributes and accessibility, as those are what will sustain you when treatment brings you to your knees.
The funny thing about how I ended up with Dr. Ross is that it started out on an awkward note.
I’d had one FaceTime call with the primary oncologist for the practice affiliated with my breast surgeon (thank you, Covid, and the fact that she was about one month out from maternity leave), and there was no chemistry. Probably as much a technology issue as anything else, but the conversation felt cold and clinical. I’m a person, not a statistic, and I knew before we even concluded the call that that would be our last conversation.
Dr. Ross had *just* completed his fellowship at MD Anderson in Houston, and was returning to Fort Worth to cover for this other physician while she was on leave, and then to begin his own practice.
All the breast surgeon’s office had told me was that I would meet with Dr. Ross (I knew none of his bio). A quick search revealed his dad, who was actually a founding member of the Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders. I was excited to meet someone seasoned, and really loved what I’d read about him and his philosophy that he’s not just treating cancer, he’s treating a person with cancer.
When the door opened and his son walked in instead, I was flummoxed. Embarrassed as I am to admit it, the words Doogie Howser flashed in my mind. He didn’t help his case when he came in, introduced himself and then said hello to my husband, adding “I see your brought your dad with you today.” Ouch! We still howl about that one.
As the appointment progressed though, Dr. Ross earned my respect and my trust. His bedside manner is impeccable and personable. He looked both my husband and me in the eyes when he listened. When he spoke, it was always in a gentle, calming and knowledgeable tone, and never with a trace of “you’re just another appointment and I’m just going through the motions.” I am happy to say that today he is a cherished friend as well, and I believe our families will be in each other’s lives for many years to come.
If the chemistry isn’t there, don’t think it will somehow improve over time. They should be relatable to you, and compatible with your personality and that of your caregiver. If you catch even the slightest whiff of ego or a God complex, forget it. This is not your person.
Responsiveness and Accessibility
I distinctly remember thinking “Yep, I know I made the right decision” when I got a call from Dr. Ross at like 7:30 one weeknight. I’d left word with his office staff regarding some questions I had, and as overbooked as he was that day, he still took the time to return my call, even though it was encroaching on his personal time. It also got me out of the unglamorous chore I was doing at the time (I mean, does anyone love scrubbing the toilet?), so that was bonus.
Here is an important point – and it’s the responsibility of you as the patient. Dr. Ross demonstrated a level of trust about my character when he called after hours on his personal cell. Physicians are (rightly so) very selective about who they give their numbers to, as you don’t want people taking advantage of that. Be the kind of patient who can exercise good judgment and common courtesy, so that they feel comfortable giving you that level of access.
I’ve never once overstepped that boundary, because I recognize it for the privilege that it is. In fact, when I was at my absolute lowest point, physically miserable, questioning why I even agreed to chemo, and wanting so badly to quit, I didn’t text him as it was a Saturday night over Christmas break and that would have been super disrespectful.
But to his credit, when I chose to send an email instead, a very thoughtful and hopeful reply was waiting in my inbox early Sunday morning.
Demeanor of Office and Support Staff
This is another one that goes both ways. You’ve got to have an office staff with empathy, courtesy and follow-through, but you also have to remember how difficult their jobs can be, and no matter how crappy you feel, it’s never ok to be a jerk.
Prioritize a practice where there is one dedicated nurse who supports the oncologist. This is the person who can be your advocate, accelerating issues where you really need the doctor to weigh in, moving around your appointments as urgent needs arise, and helping with critical paperwork for insurance purposes and FMLA leave.
My nurse also provided important documentation that allowed me to apply for Cleaning for a Reason, Chemo Angels and Casting for Recovery.
When you come across staff that are less than personable (and you will), try to give grace. There was one in particular who just always seemed so short with her words, and it bothered me. Instead of complaining though (I wanted my doctor focused on my care, not on office politics), I just took the kill them with kindness approach and eventually won her over. Love always wins!
Cookies help too. I go a little cookie baking crazy every Christmas, and giving them away means I can make a lot of different recipes without having oodles of temptation lingering in my kitchen. One of the former nurses at Dr. Ross’ practice used to call me the Chrissy Tiegen of her patients. I don’t really know much about who that is, but I understood it to be a compliment.
So bottom line, be a model patient but also don’t relent on having high standards for who you choose for your oncology care.