The Burden

Authored by: Jaren L.

I had someone who was such a close friend of my family that I considered her a second mom and grew up calling her “Auntie.” My second year of medical school she helped me move into my apartment and told me she had this painful “stretching” sensation in her belly when she moved the furniture. She said, “I know it’s probably overreacting, but you know how your mind always goes to cancer when you have some new symptom.” I said, “it’s probably just a muscle strain, but you should see a doctor when you go home.”

A month later I got a call. They’ve done a pan-CT. It’s stage IV ovarian cancer. This is the second person extremely close to me to get it, and the first died when I was 13.

I hadn’t really struggled too badly in medical school up until that point–yes I was stressed first year, but had never failed an exam. But I know the prognosis too. I keep thinking, “Will I ever see her again? Or will she die before I graduate medical school and this is it?” (She lived in another state.) Suddenly I started getting panic attacks at random times. I failed two classes that semester, something VERY and horribly new to me. I get on top of it and let the school know what’s going on, and thankfully my dean was understanding. I requested to expand my second year and to this day am so grateful I did because it allowed me to visit her frequently during chemo and not have Step 1 looming over me right away while I was making frequent trips.

She beats the odds and goes into remission, then out of remission, then back into remission. I graduate medical school and she is doing ok. Every time something comes up, she beats it, and we are hopeful.

Then I get another call my PGY3 year. She had been dizzy for a week and developed fever. My dad noticed and sent her to the ER ASAP. It’s DIC but she pulls through. More concerning are her blood counts. They want her to come back for a bone marrow biopsy… It’s a second primary cancer, MDS this time. And another pan-CT shows new mets from the ovarian cancer in the liver and lungs, so that is back too.

This time I know it’s just a matter of time. I am again so thankful that my residency was understanding, because I got the call that she was going downhill fast and to get my ass home while I was on an elective, so my residency let me switch my vacation week out to get home by Saturday, and she died on Monday, two days before Christmas 2019 in my last year of residency.

If you need some time away from school like I did, or need therapy, that is absolutely okay. Medicine is a very unforgiving and hypocritical profession sometimes, when it expects more of us than we would of our patients, but we are human too and we have human struggles.

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