Today is Thanksgiving Day in the US. Between this morning’s cases I had some moments to ponder on a consultation I had with a patient a few days ago. One of those conversations that is like a glitch in the matrix, seared into my conscience.
Here I am In Canada, far away on the other side of the hemisphere from where I used to be in Australia. I sat with a patient in clinic. People were speaking French behind the door and there was snow falling outside. The view through the window is magical. This gentleman in his 70s sitting in front of me is 5 years away from his treatment of mucosal melanoma of the oral cavity. For a head and neck surgeon, that is significant. Mucosal melanoma is an invariably fatal disease. It’s rare and it gets less media attention compared to its deadly cousin, skin melanoma. The survival statistics is bad. The five year survival rate is about 20%, that is, four in five patients will not be alive 5 years from diagnosis. After his diagnosis, he underwent a major head and neck resection. This was a major deforming surgery that often last 6-10 hours. Some doctors call operations like these ‘horrendoplasties”. Often the question is asked if the treatment is worse than the disease. With such a poor outlook, why, bring someone through such a massive surgery? He has a bigger chance of being dead than alive in a few months.
Because this week he sat in front of me and said, “I am thankful to be alive.”
Like a ton of bricks, it hit me again. This is why I do what I do. This is why I love my job. This is why I devote so much of my time learning to treat head and neck cancer. This is why I train so long and hard. This is why I do the late nights, the incessant oncalls, the long trips to conferences. This is why I stand for 6-10 hours sometimes to finish the job in the operating room. This is why I rely on a team of head and neck cancer nurses, radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, anaesthetists, speech pathologists, dietitians, etc.
It is an incredibly awesome privilege to hear my patients say, “I am thankful to be alive.”
Happy Thanksgiving Day.