November 16, 2022
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Photography by Ulas&Merve/Stocksy United
The retirement of my oncologist left me with feelings of sadness and loss. Here’s how I coped as I moved on to the next stage of my health journey with breast cancer.
I sat in my oncologist’s office, staring nervously at a display of family photos on a small side table — a faded shot of a smiling couple wearing thick 1980s-style glasses, a more recent image of a handsome young man holding a round-cheeked baby, and a little girl with that same man’s eyes laughing at something out of the frame.
I stared at their faces, wondering how many terrified women had done the same, studying these snapshots to distract themselves from the news they were about to receive.
Though I reached no evidence of disease 6 years ago after being diagnosed and treated for stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma caused by my BRCA2 gene mutation, these annual visits to my oncologist’s office dredged up a barrage of feelings. Fear. Uncertainty. Anxiety.
Checkups with my oncologist brought on other more positive feelings, as well — comfort, camaraderie, and confidence that I was in good hands. This man helped save my life, after all, and from the moment he gave me my diagnosis, he treated me with compassion and respect. He felt like my greatest ally as I navigated the highs and lows of chemotherapy and multiple surgeries, including a bilateral mastectomy.
On this particular day, he delivered good news. My blood work looked great, and I had no reason for concern about my health. But just as I breathed a sigh of relief, he delivered less welcome news — he was retiring.
While I smiled and congratulated him, the revelation felt bittersweet. I was genuinely happy for him because he deserved a break, and I was sure the family in all those framed photos would love to spend more time with him.
But at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling sad. He’d become such an important part of my life over the past 6 years, and the idea of putting my health in someone else’s hands felt wrong.
I’d had the same reaction a few months before. My surgeon — the one who performed my bilateral mastectomy and joyously delivered the news of a clear pathology report after — told me I no longer needed to continue our yearly visits.
He’d become such an important part of my life over the past 6 years, and the idea of putting my health in someone else’s hands felt wrong.
While I knew that was ultimately a good thing, I found myself crying in the car on the way home, feeling a sense of loss I didn’t quite understand.
Of course, these feelings of loss and grief are totally natural. When you spend so much time with a person during such an intense, terrifying period of your life, you’re bound to feel a sense of kinship. And when that person is tasked with saving your life, it’s easy to develop an attachment that feels more important than the ordinary doctor-patient relationship.
Making sense of those feelings and learning how to move on to the next stage of my health journey felt daunting. Here are some ways I’ve learned to cope.
The feeling of loss when your doctor retires or leaves a practice is a typical, valid response. A small 2010 study even showed that attachment theory can explain our need for long-term relationships with our doctors.
It’s also important to acknowledge and allow yourself to feel and process these emotions rather than blowing them off. Giving yourself room to experience painful emotions allows you to become more resilient and build your own internal resources.
Fear of the unknown certainly plays a role in the feelings of grief over losing a doctor. Particularly if you’re in active treatment, these feelings can be unsettling at best and downright terrifying at worst.
So, it’s important to ask questions about how your care will be handled going forward. If a replacement has been selected, ask to speak with or meet that new doctor. If that person hasn’t been hired yet, ask to speak with the one who will handle your care in the interim.
Don’t be afraid to ask how their approach might differ from your previous physician. Knowing that my new doctor follows the same protocols I’m accustomed to helps me feel more comfortable about the change.
It may feel hard to share these feelings with others — particularly family and friends who haven’t experienced a health crisis or chronic illness. But talking about the sense of loss you’re experiencing can help you move past the grief.
Look to support groups at your cancer center or hospital, where you can share with others who understand the emotions you’re feeling.
For me, an online cancer patient and survivor support group helped me work through my feelings about my oncologist’s retirement. And if you’re still struggling, speaking with a professional counselor can help you find coping tools for handling feelings of loss and fear.
As breast cancer patients and survivors, we often find ourselves grappling with unexpected bumps on the road to recovery. But knowing that I’ve been able to overcome situations more difficult than my doctor’s retirement reminds me that I can adapt to this change, too.
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