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Why I find great joy in being a cancer surgeon


By Tyler Olson | Shutterstock

Thomas W. McGovern, MD - published on 02/01/19

Joy is the reward for fulfilling the purpose we were made for.

I cure cancer every day.

Well, at least when I’m at work.

My chosen sub-specialty in dermatology is called Mohs surgery and I primarily remove facial skin cancers, check them under the microscope to see if they’re all gone and if not, I remove more until the margins are free of cancer. Then I perform the reconstruction so my patients will look like themselves.

Patients trust me. In fact, virtually all patients come in wanting to like me. Talk about a home-field advantage! And then, often within minutes of meeting me, they’re letting me — asking me — to take a knife to their faces and separate them from their uninvited guests — basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas.  

Because I perform all surgeries under local anesthetic when patients are awake, we get to partake in one of the oldest joys of civilization — conversation. No intrusive electronic medical record between us, just a patient, a doctor, and a compassionate assisting nurse. The way medicine was meant to be.  

I meet the most amazing people in my work and they often privilege me with meaningful thoughts or stories that they don’t typically tell others. There was the D-Day vet who explained the enormous scars on his back and how he got them. There was the Iwo Jima vet who told me that the orange juice in his mess hall was really the local “fresh water.”  And there was the heroic wife whose days are spent attending to the needs of a spouse who barely remembers her because of advanced Alzheimer’s. So many interesting people with incredible stories.

My patients and I connect as human beings. I get to see how God works through my hands — and my heart. The evening after surgery, I call my patients at home to see how they’re doing, and sometimes they even answer the phone. It’s amazing how many think I’m a telemarketer at first and then they’re speechless to find me on the other end. They’re filled with gratitude — and I get to experience joy.

I don’t really deserve that joy. But as Thomas Aquinas wrote, joy is always the result of love. You may recall the Scripture passage about the fruit of the Holy Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. St. Thomas said that each one in the list is the result of what comes before it.

Joy is not pleasure, because pleasure is the fulfillment of bodily desires. But joy may include pleasure.

Joy is not happiness, because happiness is when life goes well. But joy may include happiness.

Joy is the emotional reward for living life well, when we fulfill the purpose for which we were made, when we do what we were created to do.

Joy comes to us when we do something personally meaningful, something we are skilled at that fills a need for another person. When we use our gifts for the good of others, we love them and get rewarded with joy, even in the midst of suffering.

Many physicians today dissuade their children — and other people’s children — from going into medicine. I won’t do that. The need is too great, and the potential joy for patients and physicians is unlimited. If you believe you are called to medicine — or know somebody who is — don’t believe the naysayers who say there is no joy in medicine.  

The One who made us desires that our joy be made complete. If we follow Mary’s advice to “do whatever he tells you,” our joy will be complete — even in medicine.


Read more:
How to find more joy in your life … and make it last

Child Playing in Leaves

Read more:
The surprising career lesson I learned while watching my kids “rake” leaves


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