Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

The Cancer is Back


I recently lost a young patient to cancer. I was reminded that even when we cannot cure our patient’s illness, we can always show empathy and compassion.

“Cancer is back.”  That was the first sentence my patient wrote me in an email and that was all I read. It was late, after a long day seeing patients. I was exhausted before reading the email, and after I read that sentence, I just cried. It isn’t infrequent that I get the news that my kidney transplant patient is diagnosed with this or that type of cancer. It’s a relatively common complication from all the immunosuppressive therapy they receive. Throughout the 13 or more years taking care of transplant patients, many of my patients died from cancer.


The news from my young patient that the cancer was back was very painful to hear. Just a little over a year ago, my sibling called to say their cancer was back and that it had spread everywhere. There was nothing that could be done. I was filled with sorrow, hopeless, and fear. Five weeks later, my sibling was gone. There was no pain in my life even close to the agony and sorrow that I felt for many months.


I called my patient the next day. I could hear the fear in their voice. They were seeking reassurance that everything would be ok. I didn’t know what to say. Finally, I simply said, “I’m here for you.”


Between last year when I grieved the loss of my sibling and now, a few of my patients passed away from cancer. I cried each time. I cried that I couldn’t save them. And I felt each time the suffering, sorrow, and fear that their families were experiencing.


I try to remind myself:


1.We’re human beings.

While we maintain our professionalism, we also feel the pain and anguish that our patients and their families feel.


2. We can always give.

Our patients come to us seeking help and assurance. But we don’t have cure for everything. Even when we cannot cure, we can still show empathy and compassion.


3. We can be a source of strength.

Even when we suffer our own losses, we can still be a source of strength for our patients and their families.





This piece does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.