Navigating the First Year of Fellowship
For an incoming first-year hematology/oncology fellow, July 1st is when you are once again the new kid on the block. Whether you are starting a fellowship at your home institution or in a new city, July 1st marks the beginning of the final phase of training that we have worked so hard to arrive at. Although completing fellowship at your home institution may give you a leg up on finding the bathroom, it will not, unfortunately, lessen the learning curve inherent to the most challenging year of training. And although you may initially still perceive yourself as a third-year resident mastering the skills of hypertension and diabetes management, to your patients, you are now their oncologist.
The field of hematology/oncology is unlike many other medical sub-specialties in that there is very little exposure to it during residency. During the earlier part of your first year, you will rattle-off chemotherapy side effects and tell patients and their families “what they can expect.” At that point, however, you may barely be able to pronounce the drug, let alone provide patients the knowledge they need to prepare for toxicities. I spent my first year of fellowship studying the “hallmark” articles and memorizing National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) guidelines. I imagined myself going home after work to sit and read about each of my clinic patients. As the demands of first-year fellowship became obvious, however, I realized that this was not how I was going to gain my knowledge. Between learning to write orders, performing bone marrow biopsies, and running the oncology services, there were many days when I was glad to have an opportunity to eat lunch, let alone absorb the latest Journal of Clinical Oncology
Most of the knowledge I attained during the first year of fellowship came from interacting with patients and learning how to take care of them. As you make your way through the first year, you’ll realize that you are no longer memorizing a list of side effects, but rather explaining to your patients the toxicities that you have actually witnessed. As the initial feelings of being overwhelmed wear off, you will slowly become comfortable with this “new language” of oncology.
As I entered fellowship, I prepared myself for the academic challenge and even cleared my weekends in anticipation of spending most of my time at the hospital. I studied NCCN guidelines and tried to read everything that I thought would prepare me. It was the emotional toll of learning how to be an oncologist, however, that proved to be the most challenging. No matter how hard I searched, I could not find an algorithm that explained how to tell my 21-year-old patient and his family that his cancer had progressed and he was dying. This part of the job did not become easier for me emotionally during the first year. As I learned the natural history of diseases, however, I became more comfortable with these difficult conversations.
What surprised me about these encounters was the fulfillment and great satisfaction I found in supporting my patients through their treatment journey, whether it meant receiving more chemotherapy or making the difficult decision to transition to hospice. I was fascinated by the fact that cancer is the ultimate equalizer—it disregards race, gender, and socioeconomic status, and gives patients the same hopes and fears. As the year progressed, I grew to appreciate that fact that although the victory of remission is obvious, the less obvious victories such as controlling pain or nausea truly impact our patients’ quality of life.
The first year of fellowship was more challenging for me than any other time during my training. At this point in our lives, many of us have families and other obligations that may seem incompatible with being a first-year fellow. After finishing clinic most days, I would frantically run to to pick up my two-year-old daughter from daycare by 6:00 pm. While balancing family and fellowship is not easy, it is possible to juggle both with careful planning, support from your family, and prioritization. In my experience, a personal support system—from a spouse, family member, friend, or coworker—is crucial during the first year of fellowship. Caring for patients with cancer requires you to give yourself both academically and emotionally, and having a support system is very important as you learn how to handle the death and dying of your patients.
Another key to surviving your first year of fellowship is relying on the second- and third-year fellows for help as you navigate the first few months. Although senior fellows may seem like they have everything figured out as they diligently work on research projects and quote data from hallmark articles, remember that they started out just like you. The worst mistake you can make is not asking for help when needed. The senior fellows and attendings would rather be asked the important questions than have serious mistakes made.