Making Friends With Your Oncologist


An oncologist once remarked to me that her patients routinely told her about their personal lives – like they were trying to strike up friendships.

Bob Riter
Bob Riter

I can understand this. It’s not that patients expect their oncologists to invite them over for dinner, but there is a desire to make some sort of human connection.

I’m sure this is more common for oncologists than for most other physicians. Making a personal connection with your surgeon doesn’t seem as important because you want the surgeon to go in there, fix the problem, and send you home.

Oncology is special in two respects. First, cancer is nearly always serious. Even if your disease isn’t likely to be life-threatening, it upends your life and the lives of the people around you.

Second, your connection with your oncologist will be ongoing. Even patients who are likely cured by their initial treatment will continue to see their oncologists for 5-10 years. Many patients, especially those with recurrent or metastatic disease, will see their oncologists – quite literally – for the rest of their lives.

It makes sense that you want your oncologist to know you as a person. And it can help the oncologist treat you. I’m not speaking about the small things, like how you just got back from a trip and your bags were misplaced in Newark. But the fact that you love to travel is important. Or that your daughter is getting married next summer.

This is especially true if you’re living with cancer as a chronic disease. (That is, the cancer isn’t curable). Treatment decisions aren’t always carved in stone. What might be generally true may not apply to your life at a specific point in time.

As always, I encourage patients to tell their doctors what they value. Your oncologist doesn’t have to be your buddy, but she should know what you hold most dear.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.
Original publication date: May 13, 2017

Bob Riter is the Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes. He can be reached at [email protected]