Waiting for the Oncologist’s Call

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

You know that you’re supposed to silence your cell phone when you’re in a meeting. Exceptions are permitted if it’s truly important, and few calls are more important than calls from your oncologist.

During support groups at the Cancer Resource Center, it is not unusual for a person to jump up from the table to take a phone call from one of their doctors. There’s a collective holding of breath around the table because we all recognize the significance of these calls.

It might relate to the results of an imaging test or biopsy. Those results could mean a change in treatment or a change in prognosis. Some calls, of course, are for more routine issues such as scheduling an appointment.

The most difficult calls are when the patient is expecting the results of an important test. It will be good news or bad news. It’s different from waiting for a call about a culture for a strep throat. With cancer, the good news is really good and the bad news is often life-changing.

When you’re initially diagnosed with cancer, you’re usually told in person.

But if you’re living with cancer as a chronic disease – as many people do – these calls are frequent and patients typically want to know the results as soon as possible.

When a phone rings, I often see people freeze for a moment and I can almost feel the pounding of their hearts. They know that they have to answer the call.

When they return to the group, I look intently at their faces for a clue. Usually, they share the essence of the conversation, but there is a distant look in their eyes as they process what they’ve been told. Even good news has to be digested.

As I often write, cancer is like life on steroids – everything seems more intense. Waiting for the phone to ring is one of the most intense moments of all.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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