Why Heme/Onc?

Trying to figure out what kind of doctor you should become? Wondering which specialty you should choose? Then SheMD's Why Specialty Series is perfect for you! We're bringing you female physicians sharing WHY they chose their specialty. Today's post is on why Dr. Taff chose the field of hematology/oncology and why this is a great field.

When I tell people that I am a hematologist/oncologist, the response is universally along these lines:

“That’s so sad. I could never do that all day. I don’t know how you handle it.”

In truth, yes, it can be a sad specialty. There are absolutely days when a patient has progression of their cancer or passes away, and I’m left tearful. The only thing that makes those days better is the fact that I know the reason I feel so upset, it’s because the patients are absolutely AMAZING. My specialty gives me the opportunity to really bond with them, similar to their primary care physician, but in the context of a sub-specialty. On the cancer team, I’m the quarterback and coach, it’s my job to coordinate care between all the players, which can include surgeons, radiation oncologists, pathologists, and primary care physicians. I’m also the first to respond when something happens. This role is really what drives me to keep going every day, the team must stay together to support the patient, and the patient looks to me to write the playbook.

Most of the time, being a hematologist/oncologist is actually very far from a sad job.

I have the privilege to witness pure bliss when my patient responds to a treatment, when their pain finally improves, or when they regain energy to do simple things we take for granted like playing with their kids at the park. Because CANCER has an appropriately negative and scary connotation, the very threat of it has the power to invoke the best in patients. These patients tend to be a very determined group, eager to not just live but to THRIVE. It is so humbling to coach them on their journey.

While cancer typically comes to mind when considering a career in heme/onc, we would be remiss to forget the hematology part. Most fellowships include both specialties in a three-year program after an internal medicine residency, and hematology is a fascinating sub-specialty all on its own. This practice allows me to pivot from cancer to more easily treated diseases throughout the day. I’m able to treat different types of anemia, and dive deeply into investigations of abnormal blood counts. It also allows me to continue doing procedures, such as bone marrow biopsies, and to look at blood cells under the microscope for clues of etiology. If in oncology I am the quarterback/coach, in hematology I am the team detective.

In this field, the only thing outpacing the scientific advances are the questions being posed by physicians and researchers. On a monthly, sometimes even weekly basis new treatments and diagnostic techniques are approved that I can employ for my patients. The field has advanced tremendously over the last several years and while much is known, there is significant research and development still needed.

The idea that my career will evolve alongside the field is massively compelling to me, like a romance that gets deeper with time.

We will learn together, and I am so excited for the rest of my career because I have no doubt that hematology/oncology will be entirely different in twenty years (and hopefully more successful) than it is today.

In conclusion, below are the aspects of a career in hematology/oncology that I find most enticing.

1. Working as the quarterback, coordinating patients’ care across multiple specialties.

2. Training in two specialties during one fellowship program.

3. Treating both malignant AND benign conditions.

4. Performing procedures (bone marrow biopsies).

5. Seeing both outpatient and inpatient consults.

6. Advancing knowledge with continued research and new treatments.