PGY2, Radiation Oncology
Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine
I walked into medical school as the daughter of two physicians, a gastroenterologist and a radiologist – both of whom ended up in their respective specialties by serendipity – so I knew firsthand that selecting a field can be a dynamic process. And I changed my mind constantly: some days I was going to be an otolaryngologist, and other days I was convinced I would train in a combined medicine-pediatrics program and have my own cystic fibrosis clinic. As time passed, my classmates had largely declared themselves, so to speak. But even in my third year of medical school with The Match looming in sight, I still had no clue which specialty to pursue, and I was flustered as I struggled to make the most important decision of my career.
Deep inside, I knew what the problem was. I loved medicine – all of medicine. Every single bit. I loved rounding on inpatients and the socially rich nature of the wards just as much as I loved being in the operating room. I found immense satisfaction in procedures with immediate results but craved long-term follow-up. I loved taking care of the critically ill as much as I loved primary prevention and counseling. I wanted to take care of people of all ages and walks of life. I loved high-acuity situations, but I also loved the outpatient clinic. I had always harbored a soft spot for the digestive tract as the daughter of a gastroenterologist, but I was also extremely passionate about women’s health and endlessly fascinated by the brain. Choosing a specialty meant I would be able to have some of the things I loved about medicine, but nowhere near as many as I wanted. “Pick what matters most to you,” people told me. “You can’t have it all.” If only there were a specialty in medicine that allowed me to treat people of all ages and comorbidities, become an expert in multiple anatomical sites, be somewhat surgical and technological in nature, have close provider-patient relationships with long-term follow-up, and be socially rich with extensive interdisciplinary interactions…
And then, while innocently attending my first tumor board as part of my Internal Medicine rotation, I stumbled upon radiation oncology.
When people ask me why I chose my field, I usually keep my reply succinct: it’s the only “everything” field. And not just because radiation oncology boasts the wide breadth of clinical practice that I’d always desired. Radiation oncologists are more than just clinicians; they’re artists that carefully craft masterpieces with their paintbrush, scientists that regularly contribute to practice-altering innovations in cancer care, and team players that rely so heavily on therapists, nurses, dosimetrists, and physicists that it is impossible to complete their job alone. But best of all, I feel that radiation oncology offers the most profound emotional reward possible in any profession, the chance to experience the highest pinnacle of joy with remission and the deep suffering of loss. Ours is a unique form of intimacy; there is no other physician who has the opportunity to see their patients at least once a week for several weeks on end. We are in this journey with them. Our department becomes our patients’ second family as they go through treatment.
During medical school, I took a gap year before my fourth year to further explore radiation oncology at Loyola University Medical Center, where I worked with amazing mentors and had the most academically enriching and life-changing year of my education to date. My gap year solidified in my mind what I’d suspected all along to be true: radiation oncology is really the best specialty. After applying to radiation oncology residencies, I was blessed with the invitation to interview at nearly 30 programs across the country. On March 16, 2018, I matched in radiation oncology at the McGaw Medical Center of Northwestern University. As a lifelong Chicagoan, I’d secretly dreamed of being at Northwestern’s medical campus virtually my entire life. And now I had matched at my dream program in my dream institution - it was the best day of all time. I was accompanied by both of my parents, and while we drank champagne to celebrate, we were mostly inebriated from the elation of a dream come true.
On Match Day, after opening my envelope, I remember feeling an internal warmth flushing my cheeks that has miraculously never gone away since. I call it the “I can’t believe this is actually happening” feeling, some medley of bliss intermixed with incredulity, and it’s with me everywhere I go. I absolutely love my department and my institution, and I am endlessly inspired by my attendings and coresidents, who are not only brilliant physicians but also wonderfully kind people. I am an undifferentiated stem cell no longer, and I am thrilled.
To the medical students out there who similarly identify as lovers of medicine in all its forms: Don’t forget to consider radiation oncology. You really can have it all.