Is Work-Life Balance Possible in Medicine?

A breast oncologist’s answer

Only if you love what you do, says Jame Abraham, MD, Director of the Breast Oncology Program at Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center (@jamecancerdoc). “Medical students ask me all the time why on Earth I would enjoy practicing oncology,” he says. “I tell them I am lucky to do what I love every day and happen to get paid for it.”

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Enjoying medicine and enjoying your work environment are two different things, and Dr. Abraham argues that the latter matters at least as much as the former. “Physicians spend so much time at work that a healthy work environment is critically important. I view that as part of my job as a person in a position of leadership — do I foster and give priority to an environment that makes people happy to wake up and drive to work each morning? If not, the whole thing will fall apart.”

Dr. Abraham also argues that each physician must learn to build meaningful relationships with each patient, in spite of aspects of modern practice that may make that more difficult. “It doesn’t just help the patient,” he says. “It helps you find purpose in your job. I have the privilege of walking into the lives of thousands of women — mothers, sisters, daughters — at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives. I do not take that lightly.” To Dr. Abraham, remembering the purpose of medicine brings balance and meaning to his work.

Life at home

What about life at home? How does family fit into the intensity of a career in academic medicine?

“Someone once told me, ‘You can love your work as much as you want, but your work is never going to love you back.’ I try to remember this when I feel pulled in many different directions with my clinical work, my research, my academic activities and my teenage sons and family.

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“At the end of the day, I strive to live by example. If my son says ‘I want to be like you,’ that’s the best compliment I can receive. I stay conscious of this effort in every aspect of my life.”

Learning from each other

An example to follow is one of the critical elements of a successful and balanced life, says Dr. Abraham. “I haven’t worked directly with my mentor in over 16 years, but we were just in touch this morning. Whenever I make major life decisions, I always reach out to him.” Finding and building a trusting mentor-mentee relationship helps physicians navigate through the complicated rigors of medical practice.

Dr. Abraham and his colleagues on the editorial board of ASCO Post have been working to create dialogue around maintaining a healthy work-life balance. “We decided that we’d honor the tradition in medicine of learning from each other,” he says. The resulting profiles of oncologists and their pursuits outside of medicine are fascinating. Dr. Abraham is guest editor of Living a Full Life, the column devoted to these insightful narratives.

Dr. Abraham hopes these narratives will highlight the need for healthy outlets to balance to the demands of a challenging field. For Dr. Abraham, it’s writing for the public in his native language, Malayalam, and listening to interesting audiobooks on his daily commute. For others, it’s oils and watercolors, fly fishing or cycling. Whatever the outlet, Dr. Abraham believes highlighting the accomplishments and interests of oncologists outside of oncology will remind colleagues that work-life balance is not only possible, but necessary, in this demanding field.

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Photo Credit: ©Annie O’Neill