Throughout my career as a neurosurgeon, I have worked closely with oncologists. Many of my patients have cancer of the brain — one of the deadliest of the near-infinite number of cancers. I have always viewed my oncological colleagues with complicated, contradictory feelings. On the one hand, I’m in awe of their work, which can be so emotionally demanding. On the other, I suspect they don’t always know when to stop.
There’s an old joke in medical circles: “Why should you never give an oncologist a screwdriver?” The answer: “Because they will open the coffin and carry on treating the patient.”
Azra Raza, an oncologist at Columbia University, vividly illustrates this tug-of-war in her book “The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last.” It is, in many ways, a cry of protest against the disease that killed her husband (also an oncologist) and, over time, most of her patients. When it comes to cancer, Raza knows firsthand how hard it is to reconcile compassion with science and hope with realism.