For better or worse, these seven words have become a part of me throughout the course of my medical education. However, I am grateful for them, because they have probed me to reflect on why people say this to me. As medical students, one of the most common questions friends, family, or colleagues ask us is, “So, what are you going to go into?” I do not intend to insult those who ask us this question, because they almost always do so out of genuine curiosity and with no ill intent. Most medical students respond with some of the cliché responses of, “I am undecided yet,” “I just want to be a good doctor,” or, “I just want to survive medical school.” I think any medical student is guilty of these responses at some point in their training. But now, as a nearly senior medical student, this question has become commonplace in my day-to-day life on the wards.
Surgery. Family medicine. Radiology. Pediatrics. Internal medicine. OB/GYN. An especially common answer is to tell the preceptor we are with for a specific clerkship that we want to enter his or her field of expertise. Guilty. However, the more I think about what field I want to enter, the more I realize that, sometimes, the field picks you. I want to be a cancer doctor. Unpopular opinion, I know. The specific title would be a hematologist/oncologist—one who specializes in blood and malignant neoplastic diseases. There, I said it. What crosses your mind when you hear that? Is it, “Why do you want to do that?” Is it, “It takes a special person to do that”? Is it, “Ugh, everyone dies in that. That's a tough job.” If you thought any of these, I do not blame you—trust me, you are not alone. These three statements make up about 95% of the responses I get when I tell people this. And that is okay. I get that it is not for everyone, and I am certainly not going to say that I should be placed on a pedestal for choosing it. I am just a student doctor following his dream and his calling, much of which my fellow classmates are doing as well.
My dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was 20 years old. His diagnosis happened to come precisely at the beginning of when I was scheduling my MCAT and getting ready to apply to medical school. At the time, it was tough. It was new territory for my family and me. I was in the middle of my junior season of college golf, and, in retrospect, it did affect my performance on the golf course in tournaments. When I received this news, I wasn't one to share much information. I kind of kept things inside. That was fine. I felt like I didn't need to tell anyone. I was mentally tough. My dad was, too. Man, he was sick. I've never seen my dad like that. Cancer beats you up. Cancer treatment really beats you up. There's no doubt about that. We were fortunate to receive the good news that his cancer responded to treatment, and he was deemed to be in remission. Five years later, all things considered, dad is doing well today. For that, I am grateful.
A couple years after his diagnosis, I realized how much of a blessing in disguise it was for me. I know that sounds selfish, but I still strongly believe it. This experience opened my eyes to medicine. I saw the impact a physician can have. I saw the teamwork and coordination of resources that make cancer care so special. I was waiting for this moment. That “Aha!” lightning-strike moment of your life when you know the path that you are meant to follow. I admit, I was certainly biased toward oncology when I entered medical school. But as I progressed in my education, I realized that nothing fascinates me more than learning about cancer. Cancer is so powerful, both the science of it and the humanistic aspects of the fight against it. So, back to those seven words. Yeah, I want to be a cancer doctor. Those patients need me. I know the road to get there is long. I'm ready for that challenge. I'm excited for that journey.
Rob Kraft, MSIII
University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences