This plane is full of doctors. I know this because, when a woman faints two seats in front of me and the flight attendant asks for a doctor, about half the passengers stand up. They are all going from Chicago to the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, which is where I am headed.
The woman has diabetes and her blood sugar is seriously off balance. The doctor sitting in front of her gets her orange juice, a little sugar, and she starts to respond. He is calm, kindly, a man you would trust with your life. If I ever get sick again, I think, I want him. Apparently once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient, on the lookout for the best docs.
Ultimately, the doctor stabilizes the woman, so we continue on our way. And then I realize that all these docs are sitting back in coach class with me. It makes me like them more. These folks are real people. Of course, the plane is so small it could be wrapped and put under a Christmas tree, and there are probably only six seats in first class, so that was not an option. Still, they are sitting here in the cheap seats with me. Good for them.
The woman next to me is an oncologist and we share our experiences with triple-negative breast cancer, which is the subtype I had and the type I write about. She treats me like a colleague, takes me seriously, applauds my research on the disease, tells me about some of her patients and TNBC.
When the plane lands, we exchange business cards. I plan to communicate with her to continue our conversation, ask her about the young woman she mentioned whose cancer had recurred, perhaps ask if she would be a sounding board for some of the questions I get that are beyond my level of understanding.
This is a new experience for me, hobnobbing with the doctors. I have been a patient, going through the full plate of cancer treatments, so I have had close interaction with my surgeon, several oncologists, and a radiation oncologist. But the patient-doctor relationship, logically, and of necessity, is unequal. They are the experts, we are not, although it is our body going through all of this. After treatment, I began researching TNBC, first for my own benefit, then as a blog, and a book. But I had my nose in research papers and my work was solitary, done in my home office, interviewing the experts on the phone.
This business of sitting next to them and talking cancer, this is all new.
At the symposium, I sit in a packed ballroom while researchers explain how genetic research demonstrates that TNBC is not one disease, but many, and that they are getting wonderfully close to understanding how the subsets within subsets behave, which will ultimately lead to targeted drugs.
Yay! I think. I take copious notes and look forward to translating this in subsequent articles.
As I walk out of the ballroom, I talk to another oncologist and ask for some clarification of the research. He is thoughtful, helpful, appreciative of my interest, and he takes me seriously.
I am learning a great deal. My head is sparking with what I have soaked in just this afternoon. My feet hurt and my back is sore from carting my computer around. But it is worth it.
And the big lesson today is that this symposium teems with good people. Folks with amazing brains who are using them to help make us healthy. Nice people who really want us to understand what they’re discovering.
I’ll write more soon about the information they have shared, but for now, the fact that they are working hard and smart to understand this tricky form of cancer gives me great hope. And, while I want the information, I crave the hope.
Read more about TNBC in my book, Surviving Triple-Negative Breast Cancer.