Cancer has a nasty habit of taking things away from people–things like hair and strength and jobs and time. Sometimes it takes them away for a short while and sometimes it takes them away permanently.
Even before my oncologist Dr. Marc Hirsh got an official cancer diagnosis, the disease already was robbing him of things that had been precious to him.
His first loss came without any warning: his health. At 69, Marc was still very active: biking, running, paddle boarding, downhill skiing and even kick boxing a heavy bag. He went to bed Friday, May 22 feeling fine after his daily workout, but awakened in the night with chest pain. Tests at the ER revealed a 12-cm tumor pressing on his heart and partially collapsing a lung. He left the hospital feeling weak, short of breath and with a prescription for narcotic painkillers.
And the loss of his health led immediately to his second loss: his profession.
“I realized right away what would be involved with this tumor–even in the best case scenario–and I knew I couldn’t keep up what I had been doing,” Marc explained in our recent phone interview. “The rigors of private, solo practice without back-up, on call 24/7–I wouldn’t be able to do the job I wanted to. I knew it was the end.”
Patients were quickly informed that they needed to find a new oncologist. The staff of ten–some of whom have worked for Marc for 20 or 30 years–was already in mourning and now patients and their families began grieving the loss of their oncologist’s care. (Photos are Fall 2019 patient party when staff costumed as Where’s Waldo? –the one and only year Marc ever dressed up.)
On June 8 Marc updated his website to include this message: “I am sorry that I cannot continue as your physician. I extend to you my prayers for your future health and happiness. It has been my honor and privilege to be involved with your care.”
“I knew I would stop working someday, but not like this,” Marc told me. “When I finally went into the office and saw everything all boxed up, I just broke down.”
“That loss of my profession was even worse than the cancer,” he added. “I’m no longer that doctor, that oncologist. It kind of hurt.”
But the final loss was his beloved dog, Jake. Rescued some 10 years ago, the lab-hound was practically inseparable from Marc. Jake even came to the office every day, where he won the hearts of all the dog-loving patients as he visited them in the exam rooms, happily accepting handfuls of doggie treats.
Fourteen-year-old Jake was slowing down and in the last few weeks became very sick. On July 24, the difficult decision was made to end his suffering.
“No, not Jake!” Marc recalled. “I got cancer, I lost my job and now I have to put down my dog? I was a little angry. I can’t even have my therapy dog with me.”
But Marc never thought “it’s not fair.”
“If you’re a follower of Christ, you’re still going to experience struggles, problems,” he explained. “Faith doesn’t prevent (bad) things from happening.
“I don’t blame God (for all the losses) or wonder why,” he added. “I’m 69 and I’m very grateful for all the things I’ve had. My life has been so blessed and very successful that I couldn’t complain.”
He’s even grateful to have started his radiation therapy and oral chemo yesterday after waiting three weeks for all the preliminaries to conclude.
Here’s the scripture prayer Marc posted on his website for all his patients and their families:
The LORD bless you, and keep you;
The LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.
NEXT WEEK AUG. 19 Faith & Family: My Oncologist Has Cancer (Part 3)
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Make sure to open in your browser to hear “If I Stand,” one of Marc’s favorite songs by Rich Mullins, who Marc describes as “our No. 1 favorite songwriter–he’s like the Bob Dylan of Christian music.”