But while Lewis' love of helping others was piqued by his early experience, his own journey into clinical medicine has led to a deeper understanding of
healing. There are many ways to heal, he has found, and some patients consider themselves "fixed" when the medical community might not; the reverse is
"Experience has taught me," he says, "that there are many worthy goals besides cure, and that we shouldn't reflexively regard other outcomes as failures.
Even the word 'cure' has a slippery definition. Does it mean being cancer-free for five years? Ten? Dying of a medical problem unrelated to cancer, even if
cancer or its treatment hastened that death?"
Determining the success of a treatment is about as abstract as it comes, Lewis says. "We sometimes talk, imprecisely, about patients 'failing' treatment.
There's an interesting reversal of blame in that phrasing. Surely if there's any blame to be placed, it's the treatment - or its prescriber - that fails
the patient." On the other hand, a treatment can be deemed a "success" if it produces a reduction in tumor size that is only perceptible by x-ray. How is
this successful, he wonders, if the patient feels no better as a result?
The potentially long-term psychological fallout from treatment, even those that annihilate cancer, is one of the reasons that "cure" is not
straightforward. One of Lewis' greatest fears is that patients may be so "irrevocably traumatized by the treatment experience that they will not be able to
enjoy life there after. A remission plagued by constant anxiety about a cancer's relapse is a Pyrrhic victory indeed."
Truly humbling to him are the cases in which patients consider themselves the most healed when Lewis has "done the least," medically. Sometimes it is the
emotional support, the discussions of mortality, and the ability to prepare for the end of life that benefits patients above all.
For Lewis, professional life and personal life are not so separable as they once were. He's been vocal about the difficulty in experiencing the emotions of both
worlds simultaneously. For instance, at almost the precise moment his daughter was born, he lost a young patient - a mother, no less - to cancer. That day
forced a realization that the two worlds were inextricably entangled, and this, he says, is the way it should be for any doctor worth his salt.
"Then that awful, wonderful day," he recalls, "with its tumult of feelings and obligations, proved to me that the barrier was permeable. The horrors
encountered in my job were not so easily contained, and they could coincide with my most precious joys...Never before had I experienced such extreme
feelings at the same time, and the dissonance was unsettling."
Experiencing the wild spectrum of life and death emotions is no easy assignment -- but these "mortal struggles" are what called Lewis to his specialty in
the first place, and they are what keep him there. Not experiencing them is what he fears for himself most of all.
In the end, healing remains a knotty concept, and perhaps that's as it should be. "The truth is that healing occurs in many ways that defy quantification,"
he concludes. All of the roles doctors play -- caregiver, parent, patient, spouse -- inform and augment one another, and, he says, "they cannot -- should not -- be