Our Turkish Team, led by Dr. Slocum (back center, in the suit), who is one example of a wonderful oncologist

In the two and a half years since I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, John and I have experienced a range of medical, oncological, naturopathic, and healing support. Oncology is fascinating in the way it attracts certain personalities, some wonderfully empathetic and some, very much not. I’ve had the privilege to hear from other patients about their experiences along the way as well. The stories are not great. To that end, here are some thoughts…

Dear Aspiring Oncologist,


  • You are going into medicine to make your parents proud, don’t. Just don’t.
  • Memorization is your strong suit and if creative solutions elude you, don’t choose oncology. Certainly don’t work with more difficult cancers and later-stage patients for whom the gold standard of care fails. Parroting the usual plan, or worse yet, the one we had to design ourselves, doesn’t give us any comfort in your ability to care for us.
  • Not having answers to difficult questions is an affront to your ego, stay out of oncology. The important questions are really hard, and nobody has good answers. You don’t either. Pretending with us doesn’t help, especially when we have more experience than you do, inside-out, dealing with cancer.
  • Fear of dying is a trigger for you, run the other way. We don’t need any more fear. The situation provides plenty. We can’t help you with your fears, and blaming our bodies or mutant genes is out-of-date and wrong.
  • You have to be the one with all the answers, choose a less complex profession with better-known solutions. The truth of healing cancer requires a multi-factorial approach and the best answers are coming across and outside of medical silos now.
  • Your own insecurities make it difficult to admit what you don’t know, stay out of oncology. It’s complex. Experienced patients can spot a phony as quickly as small children. The conversation won’t go well and your triggers are big, bright, and shiny.
  • Competition jazzes you more than empathizing with other people, maybe surgery is your jam. Oncology is not. As medicine evolves to what it should be (effective, preventive, patient-centered HEALTHcare), that won’t suit you either.
  • You’re empathically hindered by prior wounds, get therapy before you go into medicine. Some issues are intractable, so some of you just won’t cut it.
  • You have a g-d complex and really need patients to look up to you as an all-powerful healer rather than collaborate on their care, that’s another good thing to explore in therapy before or rather than working with people (in any way, medicine included).
  • To that end, if it’s tempting to point to or even start fires (i.e., stating worst-case scenarios such as “sepsis and death” from a treatment we’ve had 18 times before with no problems) just so you can be the hero. Well, we’re not sure what profession needs that. None. Head back to therapy. Good luck.

However, IF…

  • You are both fascinated and humbled by the natural design of the human body (and the world at large) and want to be part of HEALTHcare of the future, medicine needs you.
  • You are keen to change solutions and systems that may drive GDP but don’t work for patients, keep on.
  • You can deal with fellow humans in their full lifespan, healthy, sick, or even dying with dignity, that’s all part of your job description.
  • You have both the practicality AND imagination to provide vision and hope to people for whom the gold standard of care failed, oncology is a great choice.
  • You know that patients and behavioral choices are keys to healthcare and collaboration is exciting to you, stay the course.
  • Your self-awareness and emotional stability are exceptional, leaving you in a steady place for dealing with difficult diagnoses, ground yourself and stay here with us.
  • You are cool with knowing what you don’t know and admitting that…getting answers elsewhere when they exist…lamenting with us when they don’t. Stay awhile.
  • You have the maturity to sit with people in good or dark places, with good and bad results, you could do this job.
  • Empathy is the secret sauce to how you move through the world, making work with people natural and endlessly productive, we need more people like you in oncology.

A lot of this comes down to healthy empathic capacity, which can be evaluated and developed, both individually and at the system level. Wouldn’t it be great if medicine really understood empathy, rather than gave it lip service, wrapped in snazzy marketing campaigns? Patients know the truth. We see and feel the reality way too often, and we’re sorry to say, many of you are getting C’s, D’s, or just plain failing. Ouch. It’s not really your fault though. Probably, no one told you what the job really was.

Well, now you know. Choose wisely.

Sincerely, Jackie

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An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder


An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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