I read. I spend all day, reading. I consult various sources; I make my own study guides, annotate my books, and spend hours looking at microscopic slides and autopsy specimens. I try to memorize “buzz” words, things that are “high yield.” Small blue cells- Small Cell Carcinoma of the lung. Orphan Annie nuclei- Papillary Thyroid Carcinoma. Most common brain tumor in kids- Pilocytic Astrocytoma. I try to memorize demographics, epidemiology, how to diagnose a cancer, or syndrome. My eyes droop at the end of the day, my hands ache from highlighting every line. My notes are rainbows, color coded, written all over, and brightly neon. I study words. I study what it’s likely to be tested; I study what is in front of me. It is hard to remember that I am studying the diseases of people- that as a medical student, I am studying this to help individuals in the future. That, maybe, a woman in the next town over is suffering from small cell carcinoma of the lung, taking her last breaths as her husband of 50 years stands at her bedside. That perhaps, someone my own age, 24, is suffering from papillary thyroid cancer, waiting in the hospital for an operation to remove the gland that is plagued with cancer. Often, I stop writing furiously, I stop reading, and I think. That these diagnoses can define people, turn their lives upside down, and shape their friends, family members, lovers.
Recently, I took a break from studying lung cancers to look at an old friend’s Facebook. Though she had passed away more than two years ago, her family had left her Facebook as a memorial. The page was filled with photos- photos of memories, of her during her treatment, updates on how she had been doing. Her diagnosis was Stage 3b Adenocarcinoma. She was 21 when she passed away. What do I know about adenocarcinoma? I know it is the most common lung cancer in nonsmokers and females. It is a tumor of the glands, associated with hypertrophic osteoarthropathy (clubbing). It is commonly located on the periphery of the lung. But, do I really know what adenocarcinoma means? Do I know how her family felt, the weeks after her death? How they dealt with her clothing, and belongings, likely strewn around her room? How her boyfriend lives, comparing every new kiss to his former love? How her mother buried her daughter, planned her funeral, years before she ever thought possible? Can I imagine how cancer redefined her young life? She traded youthful, foolish nights that she would never remember, with nights writhing in pain from her radiation, wishing she could forget. How she had to slowly move back into her parent’s house, though she had left with such volition and excitement years earlier for college. My studying is interrupted- by real images, memories. And I remember, I am not studying words. I am studying people, I am studying their lives, and I am studying what slowly eventually defines their existence, their diseases, and celebrating their memories.