Life as a Patient Helps One Med Student Find Focus
Published April 2007
The transition between years three and four of medical school is tough enough. Battling cancer at the same time seems nearly impossible. But UC medical student Rob Johnson took on both challenges and passed.
Johnson, 32, was completing his third year, wrapping up a surgery clinical rotation and trying to decide what field of medicine he wanted to focus on, when he learned he had testicular cancer. He had surgery, took his regularly scheduled two-week break, and then headed into his fourth year and several weeks of radiation therapy without missing a beat.
"I wanted things to stay as normal as possible," says Johnson. "I didn't want testicular cancer to hinder my life in any way."
His own treatment happened to overlap with an elective radiation oncology rotation, and it was at that point, Johnson says, that he became a better patient advocate and more focused on what he wanted to do. Sitting in the exam room and seeing others in the same boat made him choose to specialize in radiation oncology.
"I learned about it in the first person," says Johnson. "I could have done without that if I had found radiation oncology some other way. But I'll never mistake my own experience as anything other than an opportunity."
Although what he went through was very personal, Johnson has been vocal about his experience. He chose to send an e-mail to his entire class, explaining his situation and urging them to pay attention to their own health.
"If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone," he says.
He believes life as a patient adds to his perspective about practicing medicine. And so do his teachers.
"Rob's perspective from his experiences will be—and already has been—invaluable to the patients that he sees," says UC radiation oncologist William Barrett, MD. "He has a very natural empathy for people anyway, and his experiences certainly allow him a first-hand understanding of what's important in his patients' eyes."
Johnson, who earned his undergraduate degree in botany from UCLA, joined 141 other UC College of Medicine students at Match Day March 15 as they learned where they would be headed for residency programs. He was matched with the radiation oncology residency program at the University of Louisville.