Jul 5, 2022
"To the Cadaver With the Port," by Kendahl Servino: A medical student begins school in the midst of a pandemic, but also, in the middle of cancer treatment.
Narrator: “To the Cadaver with the Port” by Kendahl Servino, B.S. (10.1200/JCO.21.01979)
It was easy to spot the cadaver's port implanted in her chest. The small, triangular object stood out against the pallor of her skin, preserved in the same manner as the rest of the bodies in the anatomy laboratory. As first-year medical students, we met our very first patients here. A quiet veneration was interlaced in the air amid the formaldehyde, and it clung to us the first day we stepped into the anatomy laboratory.
It was easy to spot the cadaver's port implanted in her chest. The small, triangular object stood out against the pallor of her skin, preserved in the same manner as the rest of the bodies in the anatomy laboratory. As first-year medical students, we met our very first patients here. A quiet veneration was interlaced in the air amid the formaldehyde, and it clung to us the first day we stepped in the anatomy laboratory; we recognized the privilege given to us to learn about life and death through the human body in such a personal manner. Yet amid the reverence, I mourned this cadaver in particular, because the small port was a device used to administer chemotherapy. Easily overlooked by one unfamiliar with its purpose, it was a telling sign of cancer. It was the same port that I had in my own chest.
In the midst of a busy anatomy laboratory session that day, I was immediately taken back to a different day 9 months ago. During the winter break of my last year of college, I drove myself to the hospital for a seemingly innocuous visit and walked out with a cancer diagnosis, unable to fathom what had just happened. Graduating college, celebrating with friends, and starting my career in medical school had been the milestones of my foreseeable future; finishing chemotherapy, ringing the bell at the end of treatment—a monumental moment for many patients—and surviving cancer had not been among them. I never expected to grapple with my mortality at 20 years old.
As I stared at the cadaver's port, I wondered: was she with anyone when she was told she had cancer, or had she been alone, like me? Had she been devastated upon learning of her diagnosis, overcome by shock as I had? What kind of care did she receive thereafter? Did she have faith in herself? Had she felt hurt, searching in vain for an explanation of why she had been dealt such desolate cards? Did she feel betrayed by her own body, as I had? Moments of my own experience flooded back as I stood by her lifeless side. Looking at her face, still as though she were asleep, I wondered if she asked herself the same questions that I could never find the answers to myself.
Even if every other aspect of our life stories were different, I knew at the very least that this cadaver and I shared the burden of a shattering diagnosis. I suspected that we shared the weight of the concomitant struggles that quickly follow the words, “You have cancer.” Having spent the past year receiving chemotherapy and radiation, losing my hair, and most importantly, struggling with the overlooked, psychologic side effects of cancer, never in my life had I felt so lost. I wondered whether the cadaver with the port had felt this way too.
At times, it has been hard for me to heal while in the medical school, an environment that often reminds me, although unintentionally, of the trauma that cancer precipitated. When I observe the skillful hands of the attending physician as she instructs how to conduct a proper breast examination, I am pulled back to the memory of stumbling out of the women's health clinic in a trance, numbed by what I had just been told. During lectures taught by brilliant professors on chemotherapeutic agents, I cannot help but recall the memory of sitting in the infusion center watching those very drugs dangling from the intravenous pole drip inside me. During a charged class debate on the efficacy of self-breast examinations, I struggle to sequester the unsettling feeling that arises in my stomach as I am prompted to revisit the emotional burdens of what I endured. And soon, when my classmates and I learn how to deliver hard news to patients, such as a diagnosis of cancer, I will be reminded of what it felt like sitting in my patient's chair.
As I stand at the intersection between the medical student and the patient with cancer, I am learning that studying a disease, understanding its pathophysiology and mechanisms behind the indicated treatment, is entirely different from being on the receiving end of those medications or being the recipient of the diagnosis. Because of my dual identity, I am slowly understanding what it fully means to empathize with patients' situations. As I felt connected to the cadaver, I realized so too would I see myself in my future patients' struggles. Despite the burdens that I am currently working through, my experience with cancer has provided me something to offer to others, something that has, and will continue, to connect me to others. For the first time since starting the medical school, I am beginning to see a future not clouded by trauma, but instead filled with the potential for impactful connections and beautiful moments.
If nothing else, I write this as a thank you to the cadaver with the port. Thank you for teaching me about life through your death, and for reminding me that there is so much of mine left to live. Thank you for reminding me that there have been others who have shared my struggles and that our pain does not exist in a vacuum. Healing, I realize, is not linear. But the power of shared experiences can help heal wounds, including those that lie deep within us. These moments are found not in textbooks or in lectures, but instead between two individuals when all other differences are cast aside. And while my patients may thank me one day for changing their lives, I will have to thank them for changing mine.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: Welcome to JCO’s Cancer Stories: The Art of Oncology, brought to you by the ASCO Podcast Network, a collection of nine programs covering a range of educational and scientific content, and offering enriching insight into the world of cancer care. You can find all of the shows, including this one at podcast.asco.org.
I'm Lidia Schapira, professor of Medicine at Stanford, associate editor for JCOs Art of Oncology, and your host for this program.
With me today is Kendahl Servino. Kendahl is a second-year student at the Reno School of Medicine and the author of, ‘To the Cadaver with the Port’. Our guest has no disclosures.
Welcome to the program, Kendahl.
Kendahl Servino: Thank you, Dr. Schapira. It's great to be here today.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: So, before we start, I like to ask our authors to tell me a little bit about their process for writing, and first of all, what they enjoy reading. So, what would I find on your virtual night table today?
Kendahl Servino: I've always been a writer. When I think about my childhood, it's comprised a lot about many trips to the public library. My parents encouraged my brothers and me to read from a young age and I have just a plethora of memories of going to the library after school. And on summer vacations, we would just spend our free time there. Books were just a great way to experience other lives vicariously and to really see different perspectives.
My love for reading translated into my own interest for writing. As a child, I have memories as early as kindergarten of me writing. I would take those standard 8 by 10 computer pieces of paper, I would take a stack of them, I would fold it in half. And I would staple it along its spine. And I'd create essentially a little book.
I think the first book that I ever wrote was in kindergarten, and it was about this talking rose on a farm. And there was this whole rivalry and it was very vivid in the imagination of a six-year-old. But writing has always just been a part of my life, and especially coping with cancer became a lot more meaningful and impactful to my life.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: So, writers are usually readers as well. So, I'll go back to my initial question. Also, what books are you reading now? Or what book would you recommend to our listeners that you've read in the last year or so if you've had time to read as a medical student?
Kendahl Servino: Time is definitely limited. But currently, I'm reading a book called, A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. I'm not sure if I pronounced your name correctly. And I'm not sure if you've heard of this book, either. It's a pretty big book, I think it's 800 or so pages. But it's about these four men who met in college, and they are currently living in New York and they're struggling with the transition into adulthood. They're dealing with a lot of issues. It's not for the faint of heart, I would say because there are a lot of trigger warnings in this book. They deal with a lot of issues such as self-harm, eating disorders, and mental health.
There's all a lot of issues that they cover, but you get really close and connected with the characters and you feel a sense of bond with them by the end of the story. I don't want to give too much away about these characters' storylines, but it's a very impactful book so far that I would recommend.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: So, it's interesting to hear you talk about this book that you admire, and that touched you because your essay had the same effect on the readers and certainly on me. It starts with this amazing line. I want you to tell us a little bit about that experience that you had as a very young cancer survivor, choosing to attend med school walking into the anatomy lab, and then seeing this device that you recognize on your cadaver's chest wall as a port, and that amazing way that you phrase the fact that you immediately felt this connection to this cadaver, bring us to that day.
Kendahl Servino: Yeah. So, I'll start with a little background. So, starting medical school, I was in the middle of cancer treatment. Actually, right before I started medical school, I just finished radiation therapy. And within a couple of days after finishing and leaving my radiation oncologist's clinic, I moved to Reno, I was living in Las Vegas originally.
So, all of this was still pretty fresh. And, admittedly, I mean, it still is right now. It's been about a year since I finished treatment. But the height of treatment was when I started medical school. And so, everything was still really heightened emotions at the time. And upon seeing that cadaver with the port, it was really surprising to me, because even though I had finished chemotherapy myself, and I had been about three or four months out from finishing chemotherapy, my hair was finally starting to grow back at that time, I think seeing that cadaver with a port showed me that cancer is never really over. That's something that I've been learning.
And so, you think about ringing the bell. For those who aren't familiar, there's this bell that's often in many cancer clinics. It's this giant bell on the wall that you get to ring when you finish treatment. It's a really impactful moment, for not only the patient who's ringing the bell, but also everyone else in the clinic who can hear and understand the struggle of what the patient went through, and it's a collective celebration and something really special for cancer patients.
So, you think about that as being kind of the end all to finishing cancer treatment. But what I've been learning since finishing treatment on my own and since being in medical school is that cancer treatment or cancer itself, and any other monumental diagnosis like this does not really have a finite ending. It'll always carry and stay with you, for better or for worse.
I think that reminder of seeing the port, and seeing that connection reminded me that I will always have this part of me, this has changed me even a couple of months out from chemotherapy, or even a decade into my own future practice as a physician. And this will be an experience that will always stay with me and hopefully connect me more with patients in the future as I felt connected to the cadaver.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: In your essay, you reflect on the psychological side and the psychological suffering that accompanies that cancer journey and the diagnosis and you also talk a lot about connection as something that you find very important in thinking about your future as a physician. Can you tell us a little bit about the emotional process and the healing that's taking place now even? Also, if you can, can you reflect a little bit on sort of your dual identity as a cancer survivor now and medical student, and whether or not it's really problematic for you?
Kendahl Servino: Some of the psychological effects were a lot more monumental, I would say a year ago from now when I started medical school. Medical school is a very challenging transition for anyone undertaking this experience.
And I definitely had struggles adjusting to medical school, but I think as a cancer patient, on top of that, I faced a lot of unique challenges. I think that had a lot of impact on mental health. For example, I was wearing a wig at the time. I was bald. So, that was really hard on top of moving to medical school. And, of course, in the midst of a pandemic, on top of everything else. Things were hard for everyone at the time but being a cancer patient posed some unique challenges for me, amongst my classmates.
And so, you asked about the dual identity between cancer patient and medical student, and you asked about whether it's problematic. And admittedly, at the beginning of medical school, I think I really struggled with learning about, say, the chemotherapeutic agents that we'd receive lectures on, learning about how to conduct a proper breast exam. And those were very triggering for me, having just experienced that so recently, and so sometimes I thought that the trauma that I was reminded of so frequently, but unintentionally, in medical school was a lot for me, and something that I have been working through and I'm thankful to say now that a year later, I'm no longer as triggered by these moments in school, although they still come and go. But I think seeing the flip side of what it is like from the patient's point of view and the provider's point of view is really insightful because as medical students, we're learning to become providers and our role is to offer care to our future patients. And as a cancer patient myself, I've had unique insight into what it's like sitting in the patient's chair, being a patient with more medical needs than most.
So, in some ways that dual identity has proffered really great insight into what my patients might be experiencing and feeling. But on the other hand, it also precipitates a lot of emotion, sometimes strongly that I am not ready to face again, or would want to be reminded of.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: As you speak, Kendahl, it occurs to me that you probably need to sort of make a decision about how much you want to share about your personal circumstances, very often with your professors, with your classmates, even with your patients. How do you manage that?
Kendahl Servino: Truthfully, I'm still trying to figure out the balance too, between oversharing and wanting to share, because I think that I have a lot to offer, the way that anyone who has overcome challenges can share something with others.
As far as my future practice, and you mentioned future patients, I think that's something that I would like to connect with my future patients about in a way that is understanding of their own circumstances and whatever it is that my patients are going through with the intention of letting them know that I can understand to an extent of what they're experiencing, what they're going through, and I'd hope to convey that I will do all that I can, in my own future practice to help them and to help them heal.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: Back to you, has your medical school, and do your professors and classmates support you in the way that you need to be supported? Are they there for you on a bad day?
Kendahl Servino: I would say so. I don't have too many bad days, thankfully, as I did before medical school. I would say that the semester before medical school, which was the semester that I was in chemotherapy, I think that was my absolute lowest. And so, being in medical school, I haven't experienced that, thankfully, but I do have my support system here. I'm really thankful for them. I have been pretty public about my experience. Also, I created a blog a couple of years ago that I started out in college to convey my experiences as a college student and going through the formative time that college brings.
But during cancer treatment, I also used that as a coping mechanism. Going back to writing has been part of my roots. I blogged a lot about my experiences. And now on social media, I post about some of my experiences. I try not to post just about the accomplishments, I also like to share, to an extent, the challenges also and the hard times, because I'd like to stay true to the authentic experience that cancer was and it wasn't just ringing the bell. It wasn't just accomplishing these milestones. It was also about my lowest times and the times that I wasn't sure I'd get through it. And so, I like to share all of that, and I try to be as authentic and genuine about my experience.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: Well, I hope the process of writing this essay that you sent to JCO was helpful and was therapeutic for you as well. And coming back to your writing, which is beautiful, it's crisp, it's clearly very intentional, what is the message for the readers of JCO?
Kendahl Servino: Thank you! I would say that cancer was, inarguably, the most challenging thing I've ever experienced in my life, bar none. And I would never want to go through something like that again and I would never wish that upon anyone else either. But I do believe now that it will help me in becoming the best doctor that I can be one day in my future practice. I think that's the most that I can ask for from an experience like cancer and the most that I hope to bring out of it is the impact that I can give to my future patients.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: Beautifully said. So, I'm just curious, do you know what path you'll follow in medicine? Do you have an idea of what kind of doctor you want to be? I know a good one and one that connects with her patients, but do you have any idea of where you're headed?
Kendahl Servino: Yeah, I currently do have interests in something oncology-related. I'm not sure at the moment whether that will be the medicinal route or the surgical route. I got to know both sides of the spectrum through my oncologist, but I also got to know my plastic surgeon who was on my team as well. And I have interests on both sides of the spectrum. But I think something related to oncology would be really fulfilling and impactful to my career and hopefully be able to change the lives of patients going through something that I've experienced so personally.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: Well, hold on to that feeling. Thank you so much for writing. I wish you good health. And I hope you do join the global cancer tribe in some capacity. It was lovely to get to chat with you, Kendahl, and to read and reread and reread your essay. Thank you very much!
Kendahl Servino: Thank you so much. It was great being here and I appreciate you inviting me.
Dr. Lidia Schapira: Until next time, thank you for listening to this JCO’s Cancer Stories: The Art of Oncology podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, don't forget to give us a rating or review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. While you're there, be sure to subscribe so you never miss an episode of JCO’s Cancer Stories: The Art of Oncology Podcast. This is just one of many of ASCO’s podcasts. You can find all of the shows at podcast.asco.org.
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