Nov 8, 2022
Listen to ASCO's Journal of Clinical Oncology essay, "People Like Us," by Dr. Stephanie Graff. The essay is followed by an interview with Graff and host Dr. Lidia Schapira. Graff reflects on her life experience as a female physician, farmer’s daughter, mother, and pie connoisseur to connect and help her patients get through a life-altering diagnosis.
Narrator: People Like Us, by Stephanie Graff, MD (10.1200/JCO.22.01835)
I was standing in the dining room on the 15-year-old burnt sienna carpet, so heinous that it could have only been chosen because it was on sale. I remember the afternoon light from the western windows falling across the oak dining table which matched my mother’s brusque, wooden tone. She remembers nothing. She does not remember saying the words that I have so
often replayed, pondered. I was stung by the interaction in a way that rendered me speechless, in a way I now recognize too often in my approach to conflict in adulthood: silence assumed to represent understanding, consent, or complicity.
Weeks earlier, this same woman drove all over our small town hoping to catch the mailman before driving to my track and field meet 30 miles away. I was waiting for word from the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) School of Medicine, and I think my mom was
as anxious to hear as I was. Conveniently, her brother (my uncle) was our mailman. When she arrived at the track meet, she handed me the large envelope proudly bearing the school’s logo in the return address. I tore it open sitting with my boyfriend on the bleachers, seeing my prayers answered in black and white before my eyes. There is a photograph of this moment, so I can describe perfectly what I am wearing: my royal blue and white track uniform, my sprinters spikes and—I am sorry to tell you—a neon green hair scrunchy. This photograph also proves, in that instant, my mother understood that what was unfolding was a milestone moment in my life. I remember asking her later when I discovered she tracked the mailman around town to get the mail what she would have done if I had not been accepted. She replied that she knew I had gotten in from the size of the envelope, so she never had to think about it. I like to imagine my mom also had faith in me that led to the wild goose chase for the mailman, even before she saw the envelope.
Within the envelope, in addition to the acceptance letter and glossy brochure telling me all about my wonderful new life as a UMKC medical student, was a parental consent form. The 6-year combined BA/MD program at UMKC was far from inexpensive, and, as a minor, I would need my parents to sign this letter stating that they agreed that we would pay the tuition. Of course, by we what was really meant was I would be taking out student loans to cover every single cent of tuition, room, and board. But the letter, with a DUE BY date ticking ever closer, had been sitting on our dining room table since the day the acceptance arrived, unsigned. My father signed things like this. Never my mother. My mother would not even broach the subject with him. Nice families in rural Missouri just do not talk about money or politics. So, there it sat, a white paper elephant in the room.
“Mom, when is dad going to sign my acceptance letter? The deadline is soon, and we still have to mail it back,” I pleaded with her that afternoon. She turned to look at me, en route from the dining room to the kitchen and said, “Stephanie, people like us don’t go to medical school.”
People like us? Who is this us? Women? Mid-Missouri farmers? People from small towns? Our family specifically? Poor people? I may forever regret not asking. I may forever regret that moment of stunned silence where I only wondered if she had just said no to my dream and considered my next move very carefully so as to not make it worse or potentially close a door forever. By the time I asked her, years later, what she meant in that moment, my mother had no memory of saying it to me. This innocuous phrase, “people like us” that haunted me for most of medical school.
Eventually, of course, my father signed it. Only a day or two before the deadline as my memory recalls. He sat me down and told me it was a lot of money and asked me if I was serious about this whole doctor thing. I assured him that the one and only thing I had ever wanted to be had not changed in 10 years, after a short-lived dream of being a country western singer and that it was unlikely to change now. Then, he had signed the consent, which I had taken immediately to
the post office before anyone could change their mind.
Yet, those words kept bubbling up. When I struggled with a test or subject, I wondered if people like us always had a hard time with organic chemistry or neuroanatomy. When my classmates talked about their exotic travels to tropical getaways or international hotspots, I sheepishly admitted people like us do not travel much. When patients assumed the female medical student was a nursing student rather than a medical student, I assumed that was just what happens to people like us. When I mispronounced something or exposed my total ignorance into the
broader process of step examinations, residency, the road to physicianhood, I figured it was just the sort of thing people like us cannot help.
Then one day, a patient newly diagnosed with melanoma shared with me that he was worried about how treatment would interfere with farming. “Well, what kind of farming are we talking about?” I probed. He raised cattle, had some corn and hay fields. “Oh really? What breed? How many head?” We fell into the easy talk of farm life, and he shared his current toils of repairing his tractor. When he left, his wife pulled me aside and confided, “It really is nice to know that his doctor is one of them.” When I start to write a prescription, I often stop to think about the cost, about how $20 US dollars is a big deal to people like us, and I talk to patients about what is financially possible, what help they need, what resources we have. One of my breast cancer survivors always framed her chronic lymphedema symptoms in terms of how much or how little it held her back from baking pies. We shared recipes of her grand champion state fair pies and my mom’s own grand champion pecan pie. I could understand the flurry of activity and pressure to bring your freshest, most beautiful pies to the fair because I shared that lived experience. Patients like this, one by one, started me thinking that maybe more people like us should be in medical school. I know the statistics for my own field of medical oncology, and few oncologists practice in rural areas, despite the community needs. I have no statistics for how many of my colleagues grew up farming or preparing for state fairs every summer. But, I have answered phone calls from my mom, asking advice about what aspects of farming are safe when you are neutropenic or how best to plan Moh’s surgery around harvest. People like us are necessary to fill those gaps.
As a woman in medicine, numerous women have reached out to me to ask me questions about the duality of medicine and mothering or the intersection of work and sex. My emails, text messages, and social media feeds are filled with threads on breastfeeding at work, daycare solutions, unique challenges in leadership for women, and advice on career growth. These conversations ring with the chorus of someone like me as we connect over similarities. My mom
recognizes this version of like me as well, handing out my phone number to women in the intervening years from my hometown applying to my alma mater or medicine in general. If community and connection with other women improves career experience for women in oncology, I am glad there are people like us.
And as much as I see a need in medicine for people like me, I also see all the ways I represent privilege—which of course means that there is ample space in medicine for people not like me. If the numbers of rural or female oncologists are low, the numbers of Hispanic/Latino, Black/ African American oncologists are startling. How can we collectively provide culturally and linguistically competent care if our workforce does not share the same diversity as our patients?
So, mom, 25 years later, I think we have both grown to understand medical schools need people like us, people like all of us. I think you have felt that as much as I have over the years in your own connections with doctors caring for members of our family or in the health questions you save for me. When I sit with a patient as their doctor, I am also there as a woman, farmer’s daughter, mother, writer, baker of pies, and so much more. Each time one of these versions of me creates connection with a patient or colleague, my care improves. Each of our unique gifts and experiences help us connect with our patients in ways both big and small. Medicine needs people like us.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: Hello, and welcome to JCO's Cancer Stories: The Art of Oncology, brought to you by ASCO Podcasts, which covers a range of educational and scientific content, and offers enriching insight into the world of cancer care. You can find all ASCO shows, including this one at: podcasts.asco.org.
I'm your host, Lidia Schapira, Associate Editor for Art of Oncology, and Professor of Medicine at Stanford University. Today, we are joined by Dr. Stephanie Graff, Director of Breast Oncology at Lifespan Cancer Institute, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Legorreta Cancer Center, at Brown University. In this episode, we will be discussing her Art of Oncology article, 'People Like Us.'
Our guest's disclosures will be linked in the transcript.
Stephanie, welcome to our podcast and thank you for joining us.
Dr. Stephanie Graff: Thanks so much for having me.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: It is our pleasure. So, I like to start the show by asking our authors what they are currently reading and would recommend to listeners.
Dr. Stephanie Graff: I am currently reading The Power Broker, which is kind of a funny book to be reading. It's obviously an older book, and it's the story of Robert Moses who famously, or infamously, perhaps, built New York City, and sort of wrote the power structure of city government or state government and politics in New York, and it's written by Caro and is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and I just have never read it. It's quite the tome, so it's hard to power through, but it's excellently well-written, and really insightful into political culture and the history of New York. So, I'm finally working my way through it. I'm not sure that I would recommend it for the average reader. I just finished The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich, and, Unlikely Animals, by Hartnett, and both were delightful reads.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: You are a gifted storyteller. I wonder if you could tell our listeners and share with us a little bit about your process and when you write, how you write, and what inspires you to write.
Dr. Stephanie Graff: When I write and how I write, I think the answer is, all the time. You and I may have talked about this before. I feel like writing is often how I decompress, and I find that I'm often writing in my head all the time. So, when I'm walking my dog, when I'm driving my car, when I have downtime, I'm sometimes turning over ideas or events and looking for the thread or the storyline there. I write poetry, actually mostly for myself as my form of journaling, or meditation, or rage, or sadness, whatever it is I might be feeling. And sometimes that then turns into something narrative, and that's a habit that I've had for a very long time, even as early as middle school and high school, it was a habit that I've always had.
In terms of then turning that into something narrative or publishable, I think that that's more of an ‘aha’ moment where an idea that I've been turning over for a while finally feels like there's a unifying theme, or thread, or a particular patient encounter, or a funny thing that one of my children said inspires it to become this sort of 360 moment that makes it feel more like thematic story that can be told.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: So, given your expertise with stories, and your appreciation of literature, and the fact that you've now lived in the world of Oncology for quite a while, what is your opinion of the role of stories and narratives in our culture and our approach to training others, and sort of sustaining that sense of vocation I think that drove us all to choose a specialty in the first place.
Dr. Stephanie Graff: Yeah. I think that story is so important for how we relate to one another, and how we relate to our patients because I think that, you know, if we're just talking to patients about a phase III randomized clinical trial and throwing at a patient a bunch of statistics, or metrics, or guidelines, it's not digestible, or understandable, or relatable. And so, being able to talk about what we do at the story is what makes that understandable, memorable, digestible for patients, but also for our colleagues, and our students, and residents, and fellows, staff, everyone that we interact with in our day-to-day experience. And so, I think that really thinking about The Art of Oncology, the practice of what we do day-to-day as parables, and stories, and looking for ways to turn that science, that data into little anecdotes is really so central to understanding.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: Let's talk about the story that you so beautifully wrote, ‘People Like Us’. Thank you for sharing that and sending it out to the world. I assume this is something that you've been thinking about for decades, and I, since you don't look like a teenager waiting for mom and dad's approval to go to med school.
You know a good story, Stephanie, I'm sure you agree, allows the reader to project into, and imagine things. And there were two big themes for me, and one of them had to do with the mother-daughter relationship. So, can you talk a little bit and share with us a little bit about that aspect of the story of the words that your mother said at a very tender age that sort of stuck with you and kept on giving?
Dr. Stephanie Graff: So, for those listening, the story is that my mom said to me after I had been accepted to medical school and was kind of waiting for my parents to sign the acceptance letter, I went to the University of Missouri, Kansas City six-year program, so I got accepted to medical school, straight out of high school. And because I was 17, they had to sign this parental consent in order for me to actually start. And so, this letter was like sitting like the elephant in the room on my dining room table for, I don't know, two weeks or something, waiting for them to sign it. And my mom one day, in a moment, that to her was, I mean, she doesn't remember it.
So, like to her clearly, it was like this nothing-passing comment, like, you know, "Pick up your shoes." She said “People like us don't go to medical school.”
And at the time, I was so struck by it, but I have no idea who this "us" was that she was referencing. And I have spent decades wondering, in retrospect, "Oh, why didn't I ask questions?" You know, my mom actually was this amazing hero to me in my childhood. You know, she was a Girl Scout leader, and I got my Girl Scout Gold Award, she created all these opportunities for leadership and engagement in my community. She taught Sunday school. She graduated high school but just has a high school degree. She never went to college herself, because she was actually told by her parents that girls don't go to college, that girls get married and stay home.
And so, though she wanted to go to college, her parents closed that door for her, and so she worked a factory job to earn extra money to help support the things that my siblings and I all wanted to do that, you know, kids' activities get pricey. Eventually, the factory job was physically demanding on her as she aged, and she ended up applying to become a paraprofessional in the schools, and so spent the second half of my childhood working as a para in our schools, which actually also ended up being a very physically demanding job. But really all kind of just out of determination and passion to create opportunities for us as children. So, in no way is this story meant to be a shot at my mom. She's been a really, really great mom. And again, she has no memory of saying this thing to me that has stuck with me so harshly, perhaps over the last several decades. But she said it, and at the time I was kind of like, "What does she mean by this?" I mean, obviously, I already had a lot of doubt about whether or not medical school was going to be right for me or if I was gonna fit in there, and for her to say that, I was kind of like, "Oh gosh, maybe people like me don't go to medical school."
And then as I entered medical school, medical school was hard. It was hard as an 18-year-old. I struggled in classes, there were lots of moments where my peers were just more worldly than me. They had traveled, they came from backgrounds where most of their parents-- I had so many classmates whose parents were both physicians, and so they didn't struggle with the language of Medicine, the career paths of Medicine in the same way that I did. You know, my mom's words just kept coming back - people like us don't go to medical school. It was something that just sort of kept coming up over my career.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: So, who are those "People Like Us"? Have you figured it out? I certainly enjoyed reading all of the possible spins of People Like Us - people who come from farm backgrounds, people who aren't rich and worldly, perhaps women. Who are these "People Like Us?"
Dr. Stephanie Graff: Well, at the end of the day, I think all of us are People Like Us because you know, if anything I've learned in my last 20 years of this, is that everybody has those feelings of self-doubt, and feelings like, "we don't fit in." And hopefully, those are coupled with moments of feeling like you do belong, and hopefully, everybody has a network of belonging. But we're all periodically thrust into times where we don't feel like we fit in, and we don't feel like we belong. And there's so much that can be drawn from those moments.
So, whether it's that you are from an underrepresented group, from your ethnic or cultural background, your socioeconomic background, your gender, your sexual identity, you know, no matter what that is, your parents' occupation, if you're the first person in your family to go to college, you are going to bring the tapestry to Medicine that helps us kind of richly relate to our patients in a way that's so cool.
One of my favorite studies that I've seen in the scientific literature is actually not an Oncology study, it's a Cardiology study that looked at patients presenting to emergency departments with heart attacks, and it was a gender inclusion study. And what it looked at is in patients that have heart attacks in the emergency department, if the cardiologist caring for the patient is matched gender, like a man caring for a male heart attack patient, they have a better outcome. But if that cardiologist has a partner that is of the same gender, so like if the male cardiologist has female partners, their care of female heart attack patients improves, and that patient's cardiac mortality improves, which was so fascinating that like just having a greater exposure to female cardiologists helped male cardiologists provide better care to female patients.
So, I do think that just gathering experiences of the people not like me, that surround me all day, help me relate better to my patients. There's certainly so many cultural celebrations, travel experiences, world celebrations, that I better understand through my classmates, peers, colleagues, friends, that I have encountered in Medicine, that help me connect and relate to my patients in ways that I previously didn't have access to. And there's ways that I'm sure me as a Midwestern farmer's daughter have helped my colleagues understand some of the things that our patients cope with.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: You make a brilliant case for diversity, and of course, for inclusion, which is something that everybody is really keenly trying to think more deeply about these days.
And that brings me to another question or follow-up, and that is the role of empathy in communicating with people who are not like you. One of the most beautiful parts of your essay, I thought, was when you take us into the exam room with a patient, and you're actually giving us some examples of how your lived experiences as a farmer's daughter allowed you to connect with people who work the land, or who depend on the land or women who bake pies. Tell us a little bit about that - the role of the connection with a patient, and empathy, and compassion in helping us create a more welcoming environment, both for our colleagues and for our patients.
Dr. Stephanie Graff: I think everybody has had that experience before where a patient asks us, as their Oncologist, if while they're undergoing chemotherapy, undergoing radiation, if they're still going to be able to like [insert their passion here]. You know, as I reflect over my lifetime of patients, I've had patients who are professional poker players. I had a professional accordion player. I've had figure skaters. I've had everything, right? And I don't know the first thing about professional poker, okay, I would be a terrible professional poker player.
But I could imagine what skills are needed to be a professional poker player and answer that question. But every once in a while, a patient asks me if they're still going to be able to do X, and whatever they fill in that blank is something that so deeply relates to my childhood experiences, that it becomes this bonding moment with my patient. So, some of the ones that I shared in the essay is a patient who spent every summer baking pies for the State Fair.
For those of you who don't know, at the State Fair, you can enter your pies, cookies, baked goods, canned goods, decorated cakes, pretty much anything you can imagine, breads, and they're judged, and the winner gets ribbons - red, white and blue, and grand champion, and reserve grand champion that come with cash prizes, it's bragging rights. If you happen to also own like a bakery, or decorate wedding cakes, for example, that's something that's then marketing material, advertising material for your company that you're the Missouri Grand Champion of wedding cake decorating for 2022, or whatever it might be. So, this is a big deal, and people in my community talked about it and joked about it. And you would, at the church picnic when you're picking which pie, you know whose pie was the grand champion pie.
So, she told me going into her chemotherapy, that it was really important to her that she could do the pies. We laughed, because my mom is the grand champion pecan pie baker for our county, and my mom makes a, pardon me, damn good pecan pie, I would say. So, that patient and I spent a lot of time talking about how her pie baking was going. And I will say that the summer that she was on chemotherapy, she said that it was really fatiguing and hard for her. And so, that next year when it came time to pie season, she was really excited to tell me that like she entered two more pies than she had the prior year because she had that extra energy to like get up on the morning of the fair, and bake the extra pies, and spending all the extra time on making the crust beautiful. And I know what that's like because I've seen my mom get up at four o'clock in the morning to make a beautiful, perfect pie, and have it ready to enter at 8:00 AM when the fairgrounds open. That's so unique to perhaps rural Missouri, or the Midwest, or fair culture, and I guess probably not a lot of Medical Oncologists know what that's like.
I had another patient who was, when I was still early in my career and was caring for things other than just breast cancer, who had a melanoma, and his wife asked me a lot of questions about how it was going to impact his farming. And we had this really lovely conversation about what kind of farming, and how many acres he had, and how many head of cattle, and what crops, and they were shocked at the depth of my knowledge about farming, and my ability to answer their questions in detail about what would be safe, and what would not be safe. And when they found out that it's because that's what I was raised doing, and that's what I did when I went home on weekends to visit my family, it was help out on the farm and do many of the same things that we were talking about. They saw me in this completely different light. Then they had seen me as this high-heeled wearing, white coat dawning Medical Oncologist, and it, I think helped them feel so much more comfortable in their cancer treatment, knowing that I understood where they were coming from.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: I have to ask you this question. Have you shared the essay with your mom?
Dr. Stephanie Graff: I have not shared it with her yet. I will when it comes out in print.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: What do you think her reaction will be?
Dr. Stephanie Graff: I think that she'll think it's lovely. We've had this conversation about how annoyed I am that she doesn't remember saying it, and how -- I guess it's weird because, you know, she said it and at times in my life I would say that it was hurtful that she said that people like us don't go to medical school, and that probably is the right language at different time points. I don't know that today I would describe it as a hurtful comment because I know what it was. It was just words that came out of her mouth whilst she was busy doing 100 other things, right? She doesn't remember it for a reason, which is that it wasn't a big commentary on me, or my life, or my choices. It was just words coming out of her mouth as she was going from one thing to another. So, I don't think that she'll find any hurt, or ill will in it at all.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: She may respond with a comment about what it's going to be like for you when you're in that situation with perhaps your children, and perhaps, at that point, make a comment that to you, may be forgettable, but makes a deep impression and a lasting impression in their young minds.
Dr. Stephanie Graff: That's actually something that I've spent a lot of time thinking about, both as I reflect on the comment, and, you know, at the very beginning of this, we talked about when I'm writing, and I said, always. I think about that comment a lot in the context of so much that I do - in my own parenting with my children, things that I say to them, and how those words might impact them. Things my husband says to them, and how those comments might affect them. But also, in the larger work of DEI, and how "jokes", or jabs, or sarcasm, things that aren't necessarily meant as true, can cut wrong. And that's why we have to be thoughtful, and careful because you never know who is listening, and how words are going to hit somebody on any given day.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: On that beautiful note, I want to thank you for sending us your work. Please continue to write, and I look forward to reading future stories, maybe even a poem, sometime.
Until next time, thank you for listening to JCO’s Cancer Stories: The Art of Oncology. Don't forget to give us a rating, or review wherever you listen. Be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode.
JCO’s Cancer Stories: The Art of Oncology, is just one of ASCO's many podcasts. You can find all of the shows at: podcasts.asco.org.
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Dr. Stephanie Graff is the Director of Breast Oncology at Lifespan Cancer Institute, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Legorreta Cancer Center, at Brown University.