Dear Oncologist

Posted on: April 17th, 2013 by

Dear Dr. B:

You were dog-tired.

And I was dog-angry – and scared out of my mind.

The last time we saw each other, we discussed the bone scan report from hell. You know, the report that said I likely had metastases to the bone.

You misread the report during the appointment, repeatedly telling me that the key sentence said it was “not likely metastases,” but I was understandably rattled.

The word “not” was missing from that sentence in the report. The sentence said my condition was “likely metastases.”

What a difference…one…word …makes.

I emphatically brought up your reading error, saying you were misreading the report, saying you had inserted the “not” in there accidentally.

The “not” was a ghost in the examining room that day. I corrected your misreading three times before you finally saw your error.

You then dismissed the report, not me, as being inaccurate. The CT scan report did not say bone mets. I didn’t have bone mets, you said. Then you asked me to trust you. Like you’ve asked me so many times before.

But unlike before, I hesitated. I couldn’t bring myself to trust you.

I was a caged animal – meant to live free, but trapped by uncontrollable circumstances. Tigers in a Cage

I wasn’t nice to you when I pointed out your reading error. In fact, I was angry as hell. And what was worse, I pointed it out in front of a friend, whom I brought with me for support. I must’ve embarrassed you. That was not my intent. It’s just I felt like a hunted animal.

Even the gentlest animal will bare its teeth when trapped.

And I could see the sadness on your face when I left the appointment unswayed, still believing that metastatic cancer had invaded my bones.

I could see the disappointment on your face that your reading error caused me to distrust you. And hold a grudge against you.

I want to tell you this:

I’m sorry.

Please understand: I’m not sorry that I corrected your reading error. I’ll advocate for myself forever – and I’m tough; I have to be. It was only right that I pointed out the mistake.

But I’m sorry for my anger at you. I’m sorry for distrusting and hating you.

After all, it was never your fault that cancer socked me good.

It was never your fault that chemo is, well, chemo.

And it was never your fault that I’m forever changed, and not all in a good way.

All you’ve ever done was try to help me.

That fateful day of our appointment, maybe you had a hard day, or hard week, or hard month, for that matter. I can’t imagine how very difficult it is to be in your position. Being an oncologist must be so hard.

That fateful day, you might’ve lost a patient, or two, or three.

I will write you a letter soon, but in the meantime, I want to tell you how grateful I am for your listening and your caring about me in the World of Cancer, a world run amuck.

Thank you for caring immensely about my health and working tirelessly to save my life.

I remember all those wonderful things you did to help me.

Like the time that I cried to you about my chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment. You held my hand and told me I was intelligent.

Or the time you helped me cope during my divorce shortly after my chemotherapy ended, just by providing a friendly ear. You have so many patients calling you every day, and yet you took time out of your day to call me back and talk me off the ledge.

And how about the countless number of times you returned my calls within an hour of when I called you to ask a question or to share my panic.

But the most poignant moment was when I got my essay on my breast cancer experience published in the Voices of Breast Cancer anthology. I gave you a signed copy of the book right before a routine followup appointment. You eagerly said, “I’m going to read this – right now!” And right in front of me, before my exam, you read the entire essay.

You said it was “well-done, really well done,” and then you started to quietly examine me.

And that’s when I saw it. You were fighting back tears and beginning to cry. You never cried during any of my appointments or when you meted out treatments. But you cried when you read and understood my narrative.

And that’s the very thing that makes you special: you have always tried to understand my story and reached out to me in times of dire stress. Not every doctor does this.

Of course, we are at an impasse right now, never figuring out why my bones inexplicably break and heal.

This is disconcerting to us and always will be. There’s a lot we don’t know, but one thing I do now know –

I trust you.

What have your experiences been like at your oncologist’s office?

I’m planning to use part of this letter in a real-world letter to Dr. B. Any advice as to what lines would best go in? Any points that I might have overlooked?

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20 Responses to Dear Oncologist

  1. Jamie Inman (@ibeatcancrtwice) had this to say about that:

    Powerful story beautifully written. No need to edit it for Dr.B :)

  2. Barb Bristow had this to say about that:

    Beth, I’m with Jamie. I wouldn’t edit a thing. Send just as you wrote it. Honest and written from the heart.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Barb, thanks for your comment. Truth be told I was near tears writing this, for it is from my heart.

  3. Gerard had this to say about that:

    Bravo Beth! Eloquent and brave, thank you for sharing this!

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Gerry, thanks for leaving this comment, my friend! As always, thanks for your continued support.

  4. Pattie Cagney Sheehan had this to say about that:

    I wouldn’t cut any of it. It is all important. Maybe, though, mention the apology earlier.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      You are right. I’m going to start the actual letter to my doctor with the apology much earlier. Thanks for your advice.

  5. Idelle Davidson had this to say about that:

    Beth, this is a beautiful, heart-felt letter. From your description, your doctor clearly cares about you very much. I’m sure that he will appreciate knowing that you care about him as well.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thanks, Idelle. He’s been my doctor for quite a while, and I think he will be glad to get the letter, sort of my white flag to him. He is a wonderful oncologist, and I’m lucky to have him.

  6. AnneMarie had this to say about that:

    I’m crying… It’s really beautiful. It’s obvious you have a great oncologist and it’s also quite obvious that you were in a state of terror. Sometimes, we need to step back from that state so we can make the course correction necessary to put things back in order.

    I love the letter… and you, too….


    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      AnneMarie, I agree that stepping back from the terror can help us better resolve matters. I’ve had quite a long time to gain perspective — I was quite in an emotional state for quite awhile after the appointment, but I want to resolve this with Dr. B.

      xoxo back at ya!

  7. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    I think your letter is just perfect too. You are so obviously writing from your heart. Allowing your feelings of vulnerability and fear to be exposed is not an easy thing to do. I’m sure your oncologist understood the reasons for your anger and distrust on that awful appointment day. I’m glad your relationship is now back as it should be. It sounds like you two respect each other and that means an awful lot. Great piece of writing, Beth.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you. Yes, this letter came straight from my heart, and I can’t wait to mail it to him, so he knows things are good between him and me. You’re right about the oncologist probably understanding my anger and distrust. He must deal with that from so many patients.

  8. Tami Boehmer had this to say about that:

    The letter is beautiful. I am so glad you have found an oncologist with such a big heart. And I’m glad you are advocating for yourself. I remember scolding my oncology nurse when I was going through a rough time. She held it against me and was rude when I called until I finally broke down and cried and said I was sorry; that I was scared and hurting.

    Your oncologist sounds like he would understand. This is scary information. I would still get a second opinion. You probably have already done this since you are such a great advocate for advocating for ourselves. Love and hugs to you.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you for your kind comment.

      I’m very fortunate to have such a wonderful oncologist. Thank you for sharing your own experience. Our emotional reaction is all part of being human. How can we not get emotional with all the medical trauma?

      I hope that nurse started treating you better after you revealed your inner fears.

      • Tami Boehmer had this to say about that:

        Sorry abou the unsolicited advice. Given my experience, I am distrustful of doctors. You do what you need to do. Do not want to impose my stuff on you.

        • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

          Hi Tami,

          No need to apologize. I was asking readers for their advice on the letter and such. It is a very emotional topic for all of us. I have mixed feelings about doctors — I’ve had bad experiences where I felt I couldn’t trust them, and I’ve had wonderful doctors. Luckily, my oncologist is in the latter group.

  9. had this to say about that:

    I echo what everyone else has said. It’s perfect. Poignant, heartfelt, beautiful. To be honest, it brought tears to my eyes, in a good way. And your oncologist, while a human who occasionally makes mistakes, sounds like a gem because he cares.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you, Eileen. I am lucky to have my oncologist. He is a great person and a deeply caring individual. Thank you for your comment.

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