Grief · Musings · Post-Treatment

The Oncologist Who Saved Me

I received a letter today that I knew was coming, but I’m not going to lie – it still hurts reading it.

My beloved oncologist – Dr. V – has retired after over 40 years of practice for medical reasons.

Dr. V has been more than a doctor to me. I showed up in his office six years ago a physically, spiritually and emotionally broken shell of myself. My UCLA oncologist had given me the news that despite the hellacious surgery, the cancer had continued to spread and I was in Deep Trouble. He didn’t have much to offer other than standard care for clear cell RCC (not what I had) and the recommendation to see Dr. V since he was in Vegas and he was involved in clinical trials. “I would send my own family to see him,” he said. My UCLA oncologist didn’t explain my diagnosis very well other than that I had “2 types” of RCC and that I needed to start some form of treatment ASAP.

I went home and read my biopsy report that said my type of RCC was associated with “frequent metastases and poor prognosis,” and I crumpled to the bedroom floor. After my own anxiety-fueled Google search confirmed what I was reading in my scan reports: that I had a year left at best given the significant spread and the aggressiveness which it was spreading — I wondered if it was even worth it to see Dr. V.

So a few weeks later, there I sat in his office, scared and defeated, wondering why I was even bothering, when Dr. V strolled in and gave me his signature warm smile. He sat down and leaned close while he calmly answered every question thoroughly, explained the nuances of my disease, and laid out all my options.

“I will even give you chemo if I have to, if everything else fails, to prolong your life. You’re just so young.”

I found out later he had kids who were roughly my age.

Throughout it all, he assured me we were a team. He promised me when I was trying to decide if I wanted to join the first clinical trial he presented me that if it showed it wasn’t working, he would pull me off immediately, research be damned. I didn’t know if our gamble would pay off, but I immediately trusted Dr. V. If he said this clinical trial was my best shot, then it was my best shot as far as I was concerned. From that very first appointment, I walked out with the faint tickle of hope in the pit of my stomach again. I was overwhelmed, I was scared, but I knew he would do everything and anything he could. He shared with me his own cancer story. “I’ll never ask you to do anything I haven’t done or wouldn’t do myself,” he said to me one day, and I knew he meant it.

My weeks were filled with appointment after appointment with him. I was at his office weekly, then biweekly for those first few months. That December, I had my first scan since starting Cabo and we held our breath. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he came striding into the exam room a few days later. “Eighty percent!” he shouted victoriously as he pumped his fist in the air. “80 percent?!?” Patrick and I said in disbelief. “Eighty percent reduction in your tumor burden!! It’s working!” he bellowed. I couldn’t get out of the chair fast enough to hug him.

There are many wonderful RCC specialists. I am fortunate to live where the best of the best medical care is in my backyard, which is why many didn’t understand why I continued driving back and forth to Vegas to see Dr. V.

But there is only one Dr. V.

I’m in the process of transferring my care back to UCLA, and I know I’ll be okay.

But there is only one Dr. V.

He was in the trenches with me, day in and day out. We had many tough conversations many times, some of the worst of my life in that office. But I always knew – without a doubt – that he had my back and that if I were going to die young, it wasn’t going to be from lack of effort on his part.

We bonded over my illness, but we also bonded over life. He was one of the first people I texted after my oldest daughter graduated high school. When my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, I consulted Dr. V. When my mom was diagnosed, I consulted Dr. V. Every appointment of mine after Mom got sick, he’d ask me how she was doing and offer his two cents. I saw him the day before I jumped on a plane to get to her when she was in ICU. At my next appointment after she died, he held my hands in his and told me how sorry he was, patiently allowing me to cry even though I knew his waiting room was full.

To say he has been my doctor does so little to explain the type of bond cancer patients have with their oncologists.

If I’m lucky enough, I have many, many years of oncological care ahead of me. The field has already moved so fast since I was diagnosed that I have plenty of reason to hope that will be my reality. But I don’t know that I’ll ever implicitly trust another oncologist as much as I do Dr. V.

I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: thank you, Dr. V. You have added more than just years to my life. You believed in me when most oncologists would have thrown the towel in. I’ll continue doing my small part to shine your legacy everywhere I go.

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