I was in high school when I was first exposed to the word cancer. My dad, Konrad Hofmeister, was diagnosed with acute leukemia at the age of 50.
His case was far from straightforward; I remember struggling to understand what the doctor was saying. Unlike nowadays, we didn’t have information on the internet. So, my family had to entirely rely on the doctors—blindly trusting. Only with time, many more visits, and many more tests did he come to understand his disease and what he was truly facing.
Through the ups and downs of my dad’s illness, I witnessed him strive to make the experience the best it could be. He embraced it. The time I had with my father while he was on treatment was some of the most difficult but also valuable time we had together. I learned invaluable life lessons and skills.
I know I wouldn’t be the doctor I am today without my dad. I use the skills he taught me every day in my own practice. Here are just a few things this painful experience taught me that I have been able to use as a force of good.
I learned there is no right way: there’s only your way.
As I look back, my father didn’t choose to get cancer, he didn’t have to fight it, but he did choose to face it. He faced it bravely. He decided to take treatment, and the treatment was successful for a time.
He spent that time shaping the rest of my life. He faced his leukemia with support from his family. He faced it the way he wanted.
From him, I learned that patients should face their cancer, their way. (Yes, this is much easier said than done.) To face cancer, patients need to understand their disease and their options in order to make decisions.
Through understanding, patients can gain confidence in making decisions that are right for them and what they believe in.
I gained the perspective of both sides: a loved one and an oncologist.
Before I was a doctor, I was a “loved one.” I sat next to my dad through many of his appointments. After visits, I witnessed my parents continually disagree on their interpretations of what the doctor said or meant.
Because of this, I know exactly how it feels to be a loved one; I can relate to my patient’s (and their family’s) experiences personally. I know how difficult it can be to sit in front of the doctor and hope to understand what’s being said.
Now, as an oncologist, I also know how difficult it is to be the doctor and try to explain cancer in terms my patients can understand. It takes years of practice, comfort with the conversation topics, and a lot of time in the room to be successful. I have to explain everything at least three times: first medically, then in layman’s terms, and finally repeating the medical concepts again (and hope my patients were able to follow along).
Because of my dad’s illness, I am able to understand both sides of the conversations I have with my patients. I know his illness gave me my unique perspective.
I stumbled upon the key to talking with my patients: the story of the dandelion.
When my dad got sick, I became the sole male of the household. As a way to support my family, I started my own landscaping company. Thanks to my dad, I acquired both knowledge of gardens and a dislike for dandelions.
Many years later, this knowledge and experience inspired my approach to explaining difficult concepts to my patients.
Equipped with 20+ years of practice, using comparisons to everyday experiences—like cancer and dandelions—is still the best way for me to connect with my patients and explain their disease and treatment.
Not only are my patients familiar with dandelion invasions, but this analogy also reminds me of all the hot summer days I spent taking care of lawns to help my family while my father was sick.
Every time I use this analogy, I remember my father and his impact on my entire life.
I discovered support is taught, learned, and passed on.
Finally, I reflect on how my experience with my dad through his diagnosis continues to influence me. He taught me how to be a great father. Like him, I have been able to cherish countless hours with my daughter—Abby Hofmeister—as we brainstorm, write, edit, and (of course) argue over the content (and just about everything else). I have watched her grow into a powerful, intelligent, motivated professional who shares the same passion as me: teaching patients through storytelling.
I hope I can influence her life like my father influenced mine—hopefully without illness this time.