Every year during the last week of October, many people take a genuine interest
in my field of work. I treat cancer. The last week of October is the time when
major media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times descend on the annual
meeting of my professional society to portray medical breakthroughs as breaking
This year, the American Society of Therapeutic Radiology and
Oncology (ASTRO) convened in Boston, which happened, on the same date, to become
one of the epicenters of Hurricane Sandy. So this time, as TV reporters
interviewed us, my colleagues and I were asked to comment on storm conditions
rather than potential cures for malignant disease.
One day before the
hurricane made landfall, Sandy was being characterized as either a “megastorm”
or a “Frankenstorm.” Although it was impossible to articulate the
difference between these apparently sensationalized terms, one day after the
hurricane hit, all agreed that both monikers represented
Meanwhile, back at the meeting, the atmospheric
conditions were surreal. We – the conventioneers – had arrived to exchange
ideas, expert-to-expert, in someone else’s city that was on loan to us for 72
hours. But as this perfect storm crashed into the shore, we all received a
less-than-perfect crash course in meteorology; our new area of
Professors like me never shy away from adopting an
authoritative tone. We quickly acquired the temerity to speak about “the rare
confluence of the full moon tide and the warm-cold fronts that had, obviously,
fueled the surge.” Obviously! In truth, we all sounded like we had
unsuccessfully memorized “Hurricanes for Dummies.” Our regurgitation of facts
that we did not comprehend was simply pathetic.
As depicted in newspapers
and on the web, Hurricane Sandy immediately took its toll on the macro level.
The storm mercilessly killed people, damaged homes and upended businesses. On
the micro level, for conference participants, even the simplest tasks turned
into challenging ordeals. Blustering winds blew the drenching downpour in a
horizontal direction that walloped us and pushed us back as we tried to perform
the simplest tasks such as crossing the streets that connected the hotels with
the lecture halls.
Highly capable people were instantly being rendered
dysfunctional. When conference organizers noticed that most incoming
flights were being re-routed and that Amtrak had suspended operation of all its
rail lines in the northeastern United States, they had no choice but to cancel
opening day activities. The decision was surely heavily weighed as the opening
day centerpiece is always the highly anticipated Plenary, a showcase for the
sharpest of cutting- edge results from elegantly designed clinical
In the hotel lobby, after people had scrambled for safety and sat
down by the fireplace, conversations evolved in an almost theological
direction. Sure, someone made the inevitable analogy to the Noahide
floods that were recounted in synagogues around the world just one week earlier.
But then, a deeper, decidedly spiritual tone to the discussions
Despite all the efforts made to collect, analyze and report the
exciting medical data, the assembled physicians realized that there would be no
major scientific presentations this year. Suddenly, we doctors had a revelation.
We were not in charge. Some external force – divine or otherwise – had usurped
the reins to inflict the rains.
We began to observe what our patients
discover after a cancer diagnosis: life does not always proceed as
planned. First and most evident, no one plans to get a tumor. But then,
that diagnosis quickly takes over and consumes the patient and the caregiver. A
new prioritization sets in. Appointments for tests and treatments trump
everything else previously scheduled, even though tests and treatments don’t
always take place as scheduled.
Even for people who aren’t control
freaks, the experience of marching to someone else’s drumming is
Whether the consequences of Hurricane Sandy are attributable to
God, Mother Nature or some other supernatural entity, my colleagues and I were
being reminded of a simple truth. Despite the occasional attempts of certain
people to deify us, we doctors are not gods. And irrespective of religious
beliefs, a consensus emerged that the faster we learn to accept the limited
influence we have on the way events unfurl, the happier we might be.
someone who can be one of those “control freaks,” I can easily delude myself
into thinking that I am invincible and in charge of all outcomes in my life. But
this way of thinking sets us up for the disappointment that arrives when
expectations are not met. A deluge like Sandy or an illness like cancer quickly
resets our outlook. Might we learn this lesson before natural disaster or
emotional tragedy strike?
The author, a professor of oncology, is the chairman
of the Institute of Radiotherapy at Tel Aviv Medical Center and the cofounder of
Life’s Door-Tishkofet. His blog (“52”) is featured on JPost.com.