Oncology pharmacy is best learned in real time with real oncologists and real patients.
As the daughter of an old-time pharmacist in a small town in Maryland, I knew pharmacy would not be the career for me. Long hours, standing on your feet all day, and limited time with the family as a single-pharmacist operation had little appeal. But who didn’t love their local pharmacist?
My dad was a local hero who got anti-venom from the National Zoo when a child in town was bitten by a copperhead snake. He contacted the police and had it sped down the beltway to the local hospital to be administered.
Being a bit of a showman, he kept that snake in huge jar of formaldehyde in the back of the store to bear witness to the story. As the lone pharmacist, he was really the medical expert that folks in town could come to at any time. In the end, he was put out of business when a chain store—a very new idea at the time—came into town. He ended up working for another chain in a different area.
I had a change of heart when I failed my premed course in genetics, making a split-second decision to go to pharmacy school because I had all the requirements. In 1975, I headed to Howard University College of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences where I earned my degree in pharmacy and moved to Long Island, New York.
I found a career in hospital pharmacy and worked more than 40 years as a staff pharmacist. I loved my job, but working every Sunday was difficult (I observe the Sabbath on Saturday). So, I waited for a part-time opening in-house and began to think about second act careers. I still had a lot of energy.
In the meantime, our director met with the department and told us we would have to learn about a new computer program because our hospital was starting a cancer center. In the past, most of the pharmacists dealt with some amount of chemotherapy, but none of us were adept at verifying protocols or particularly loving compounding them.
It was intimidating to be involved with such hazardous medication. Seeing this as a pathway to try something new, I volunteered to stay there. I thought I would be welcomed with open arms, but I was told they were looking for qualified pharmacists and I was not one—and besides, they reasoned, wasn’t I seeking to go part time? With that, I proclaimed my new commitment to the department, and I marched myself over to the computer during lunch and Googled how to become an oncology pharmacist.
My journey to become a board certified oncology pharmacist was only rivaled in difficulty to training to run the New York City Marathon. I had been out of school since 1979 when the newest drug on the market was ibuprofen.
I was never a great student and I certainly never studied statistics, which I came to learn was a good percentage of the board certification. I bought several review courses in oncology, a set of colored markers, a very big notebook, lots of notebook paper, and began a regimen of getting up early each morning to do at least an hour of review before work.
I needed to look up so many words on the computer I didn’t think it was possible for me to ever gain the knowledge that I needed. Humorously, in the medication review tests, people kept decreasing their pricing for me because I needed so many cycles of their product.
A day before the time to take the exam arrived, I called the test center and asked if I could come by and see the layout of the room and the proximity to the bathroom. I wanted to have all my bases covered on the things I could control. When you are 65 years of age, going to a test center to take an exam is a new experience.
On the day of the exam, the workers at the center were particularly gentle with me as they had me empty my pockets and check in. They obviously noted that I was not the usual 20- to 30-year-old candidate, and I could feel their silent support.
I didn’t pass on the first try. Unfortunately, I was with my whole family when I got the email. I was embarrassed and tried to be stoic in front of them. But later, after I cried, I read a quote somewhere that became my new mantra. It goes, “The finish line is for the ego; the journey is for the soul.”
It just felt right. Oncology, with all my studying and memorizing, is best learned in real time with real oncologists and real patients. Each time I got a question from the prescribers or the nurses, I gained new knowledge and insight.
I met patients daily, talked to them and offered them a cup of tea. I read whenever I could and didn’t sweat the detailed information that I could not memorize. I continued to work hard in my pursuit and enjoyed the journey.
I am proud to say that I passed the BCOP on the second shot. I didn’t have the highest passing score, but I did it. I love my new career in oncology. I love the patients, and the staff. I love using every ounce of concentration while I am compounding chemotherapy and I am quick to tell the patients that I spend a moment to acknowledge the person who will be receiving it. I love learning new protocols and seeing the major advancements that come out every day.
I see sadness, but I also see miracles, I see people at their best and at less than their best. No one, not the patients, not me, nor anyone else has promises of another day, but I do what I can to infuse someone else’s journey with a bit of light.
I am happy to say at 67 years of age that I am hoping to continue my career as an oncology pharmacist for many more years to come. It has been exhilarating ride and similar to the NYC marathon motto, I changed “I can’t” to “I did.”