Comfort with Discomfort

Today, exactly 16 days after finishing my last scheduled chemotherapy, I had my first cancer survivorship appointment.

Survivor.

I am so uncomfortable with that label.

It feels too bold. Unearned. Risky.

How dare I tempt the Fates?

The discomfort is gnawing and visceral.

But having comfort with discomfort is something I’ve practiced for a long time.

(Apologies in advance if you’ve ever been a student/resident/fellow who trained with me. You already know what I’m going to say).

Most people know that medical training involves a hierarchical model of learning. You start with easier procedures and gradually tackle those requiring more skill and responsibility.

By the time you finish residency and/or fellowship, you’ve spent anywhere from three to seven years climbing this pyramid, enough time to gain a level of confidence and expertise to know you can successfully complete the most complex tasks.

For OBGYNs, a classic example of this is a c-section. At minimum, two people are needed for a c-section, one to be the primary surgeon and one to assist. They stand on opposite sides of the patient and work simultaneously. For right handed surgeons, working from the patient’s right side gives you better access to the pelvis with your dominant hand, a mechanical advantage that comes in handy when you need to reach into the pelvis and safely deliver the baby’s head. Thus, when you’re learning to do a c-section, it’s much easier to be on the patient’s right side than the left. At the start of residency you’re always positioned on the right and at some point you become skilled enough to graduate to the other side of the table.

The thing about residency, however, is that even when you’re confidently leading from the left, there’s always – ALWAYS! – someone more responsible than you are. The attending physician (a.k.a. your professor) may not be physically in the operating room, but theirs is the ultimate responsibility for this surgical outcome, because at the end of the day you’re still a student.

The other thing you may know about medical training is that every June 30th, there is a magical turning of the calendar page and suddenly, everyone gets advanced one year. When it’s your turn to graduate, the buck now stops with you.

3 A.M., July 16th, 2005: The buck stopped with me. I was a newly minted fellow on overnight labor and delivery call, doing a c-section with a second year resident. I was confidently leading from the left and everything was going fine, but I recall a sharp moment of clarity when I realized that holy cow, I was the attending, the only attending, and no one was secretly standing by to swoop in and save me if I got into trouble.

The discomfort of that knowledge was gnawing and visceral.

Eventually, though, (and by “eventually” I mean years), I garnered enough experience, learning and growth to develop a level of comfort with discomfort.

What this is:

  • Confidence you can do the work
  • Confidence you can be successful
  • Confidence you can do hard things and then do more
  • Confidence that sometimes things will not go your way and you will need help, and that is ok
  • Confidence that you will be ok

June 4th, 2020: I find myself once again trying to find comfort with discomfort.

Cancer survivorship isn’t my only discomfort of 2020.

The social injustice and systemic racism unveiled after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis – where I live – presents a profound opportunity for reflection, action and personal development.

Eventually, though, (and by “eventually” this time I mean the rest of my life), I hope to garner enough experience, learning and growth to develop a level of comfort with the discomforts of 2020.

Who Here Has Cancer?

I had the strangest thought last weekend as I attended my daughter’s fifth grade orchestra concert and surveilled the audience in the (nearly full) auditorium:

Who here has cancer?

Statistically, nearly 40% of people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime.

That is sobering information.

Scanning the crowd, I didn’t see any obvious candidates.

But then again, I was there with my post-mastectomy surgical drains hidden under my boxy jacket.

I was also there last fall, attending a prior concert, and undoubtably I had cancer then.

I just didn’t know it.

Who else was here, knowingly or unknowingly living with cancer?

There are nearly 17 million cancer survivors currently living in the U.S., including an estimated 300,000 in my state.

Of the U.S. total, there are 768,470 women survivors who have lived more than 30 years since diagnosis.

I would do almost anything to be one of them.

Letting the Days Go By

David Byrne performed “Once in a Lifetime” on Saturday Night Live last weekend.

At first I thought the performance was comically weird, and then I learned that the monochromatic Byrne clones onstage were a part of his Broadway show American Utopia.

Here’s the thing: “Once in a Lifetime” is my jam.

These lyrics have long resonated with me:

And you may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well
How did I get here?

How did I get here?

I marvel at this again and again.

Prior to my diagnosis, the wonderment was directed at the fact that, nearly 22 years ago when we married, Spouse and I never dreamt our lives would objectively be as successful as they are.

Lately cancer feels like it took it all away.

Except.

Seeing David Byrne perform that favorite song in a new way sparked something within me.

I could change my tune.

Same song, new performance.

I don’t know what A.C. (After Cancer) Life is going to be like yet, but I really hope to find myself there.

Under the rocks and stones, there is water underground.