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Surviving a Career in Cancer



Surviving a Career in Cancer

I have been a physician assistant for 15 years, 13 of which have been in the field of oncology (Cancer Care). I work with a team of medical oncologists, otherwise known as “the doctors that give the chemo” to treat patients with different types of cancers.  The first thing people often say when I tell them this is “Wow that must be so depressing.” I find that interesting because when someone tells me they are an accountant I actually think the same thing..but I digress.. Yes, taking care of cancer patients can be extremely emotional, overwhelming, and at times, maddening. They will ask questions you cannot answer, they will get angry at you, they will be in denial, they will refuse therapy, they will demand therapy, they will make you feel you have failed. You will feel a small piece of your heart break when you look at a family trying desperately to help the person they love. You will feel the tears of everyone in the room in the pit of your stomach as you tell them there are no more options. You will, at times, walk away feeling helpless but there are 10 other patients waiting to be seen, so take a deep breath, put on a smile and keep moving. So WHY on earth would anyone choose this specialty?  Because taking care of these patients can be inspiring, deeply rewarding and a constant reminder why the research we do has a purpose. Because there have been hundreds (maybe thousands) of new drugs that have been developed and approved to treat a multitude of cancers in the last decade alone. Because we have a passion to help people feel the best they can during their most difficult days and an inherent desire to connect with the human spirit. Because it is a daily reminder to embrace life as it happens, to cherish every moment and person you have on this earth.   There is something very unique about the field of oncology that I feel sets it apart from other areas of medicine. It is the amount faith and trust patients put in the physician, you, the team, and whatever higher being they believe in. It is that moment when you are no longer doctor/PA and patient, but 3 human beings that have shared an experience that cannot be put into words. It is the rollercoaster of emotions that oscillate between pure happiness for another person when you can deliver good results, and true grief when the outcome is not as we had hoped.  

So how do cancer providers deal with the highs and lows of this profession? Here are some things I have done over the years that keep me motivated and passionate about cancer care.  


Yes, I know this is redundant theme in my posts, but it is the number one sanity saver for me and for my husband.  Sweating it out first thing in the morning puts me in the right frame of mind to deal with any situation that may arise. It also allows me to sleep better at night with less anxiety and second-guessing of my medical judgement.  

2-Use Your Lifelines

The people you work with can make or break any profession, but in this field trust is a MUST! I have been lucky enough to work with amazing physicians and nurses that have taught me most of what I know today, but also that I can LAUGH with. Surround yourself with colleagues you can vent to, share your frustrations, and more importantly understand your not so appropriate medical humor. I would never get through the day without comic relief.

3-Get a Hobby

Michele Neskey

For years all I did was work, eat, sleep, repeat but without something else to focus on, you will burnout.  No one can sustain the psychological stress of taking care of patients without finding something outside of the job that you LOVE to do. For my husband it is surfing. For me it is coaching and of course, blogging. Helping other people feel better about themselves and make positive changes in their lives is beyond rewarding.  I love the connections I have made and the opportunities I have had to grow personally and professionally.


Go to conferences, learn about new treatments, get involved in research and get inspired! Network with other cancer providers around the country to collaborate on projects. It is amazing how quickly this will reinvigorate you and change how you look at the day to day. Get involved with your local PA program and medical school. Serve as a preceptor or mentor, it is funny how those little eager beavers can make you feel young again.

5-Fun and Pets

Surround yourself with really good wine (in moderation), family, friends and dogs (unless your a cat person).  It takes some time to learn how to leave your work at the door, but when I walk in and see 2 fluffy dogs who love me unconditionally, a toddler that runs to hug me, my husband with a glass of red, life is instantly better. There is something to be said for pet therapy….the act of petting alone produces an automatic relaxation response.  They lessen anxiety, lower your blood pressure and let’s face it, they are too damn cute to resist.


If you are in the same work environment as me, what do you do to avoid provider burnout? Please comment or send me a message, I would love to connect with you!
For more interesting tips check out my post on Must do Habits for Successful people.  Interested in a career in oncology or need a hobby?? Let me introduce you to both! Follow me on Instagram and send me a message!

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