I wish u knew… how cancer patients have changed my life

Tim Hampshire

Dr. James Metz is something like a caricature of “That Guy at Work.” He’s active, dynamic, engaging, passionate, muscularly built, dresses sharply, and absolutely abstains from coffee. “I love my job,” he tells everybody, including the lowly Oncolink blogger sticking a camera in his face, for whom he makes time because it’s important to do favors for friends in the department, and because he always makes time for things, because he’s good at that too.

Add to all that the fact that he’s preposterously successful. At 45, he’s the Vice Chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Penn Medicine, travels the world to give lectures on proton and other targeted therapies, and holds a full professor post at the Perelman Medical School. (He’s the youngest person to ever achieve that post.)

A study in humility, he also knows how to turn a handful of minutes on camera into a lesson about how to seize the day. Perhaps when he conquers the entire world of medicine he’ll be a motivational speaker.

The twinkling blue eyes and heavy South Jersey accent pull it all together with gusto.

So what did Dr. YOLO have to say for I Wish U Knew? Just exactly what I was looking for–a few musings on how being a doctor changes him personally, what he tries to pass on to the people who work under him, and where he goes to get away from it all (the answer is Thailand, to scuba dive, because “Under the ocean is the only place I can turn off my phone.” So he’s also witty and adventurous. Do you love him or hate him? I love him.)

What you’ll find in the video is a likable guy who found enlightenment early enough to share it with people. Part of his profession is seeing people when they’re reflecting on their lives. He takes a lot out of that. The way he described it to me was: “What they wish they had done or hadn’t done impacts the way I go forward…They say ‘I never expected my health to change, or my situation to change, and I never got an opportunity to do those, and I wanted to do those, I should have done those’.”

Somebody like Dr. Metz doesn’t want to see people dying with regrets and write poems about it. He doesn’t want to sit around and think about it. Instead, he siphons from the regretful all their hungry dreams, and makes them happen, like libations to their dying spontaneity. He lives a full life because too many people don’t. “Any time I have an opportunity to travel, spend time with friends and family, do the things I want to do, I do it,” he said.

It’s funny that the people who see so much suffering are the ones who end up forming the opinion that life is precious. The jaded existentialist, the doctor who thinks it’s all sound and fury, is the stuff of myths. He signifies nothing. Dr. Metz, though incredible, is actually a little more realistic, because he’s right. Life is precious. Why else would we fight so hard for it? That thought process is the one that impacts him as a physician. “What type of treatment course do I prescribe for the patient?” he has to ask himself. Evidently it’s not just longevity, but quality, that makes a life precious. Those two criteria–lengthening life and maintaining its pleasantness–are what guide him when he goes to map a plan to cure someone of his or her cancer.

But mapping those plans, writing those prescriptions–he has doubts about the whole thing (wait, maybe he is an existentialist.)

“What I do as a physician…you know, I prescribe medicines, I prescribe radiation, and I treat cancers. I actually don’t know that that’s the most important thing that I do.”

You were saying?

“The most important part of what I do is…”

He switched to the interrogative, going rhetorical on me:

“How do you find hope in situations, realistic hope?”

I had no answer.

“Sometimes, it’s ‘we’re gonna cure this, and you can do all these things you want to do.’ Sometimes, it’s, ‘we’re not gonna cure this, but we can give you a quality of life for a significant period of time that’s going to allow you to get to these various things you want to do.’ Other times, it may be, very simply, ‘You know what? I can get you out of pain.'”

When he said that, three patients from the past entered the room and made him remember three things they wanted to do. I think–I will always think–that after I left his office, he put those three things on his itinerary, and he’ll get to them soon.

It’s a big heart that has the ability to live for four.

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