By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
At age 48, Dante Carbajal Ocampo is not what you might expect in an oncological gynecologist.
Unlike the classic stereotype of a jaded, moody, disinterested, keep-your-emotional-distance oncologist (a recent Medscape report said that at least 78 percent of oncologists experience serious professional burnout and depression within their first five years of practice, and 10 percent said that the psychological toll was so great that they were considering abandoning medicine altogether), Carbajal Ocampo is affable, upbeat and personally concerned about both his patients and their cases.
“Of course, there are patients for whom there is little that can be done,” he told Pulse News Mexico in an interview late last month. “And it is disheartening to have to tell someone that their condition is terminal.”
But for Dante Carbajal, there is always a silver lining, no matter how grave a patient’s prognosis may seem.
“I don’t believe in statistics and I don’t give odds on a patient’s prognostics or life expectancy,” Carbajal Ocampo said.
“Every patient is different. I refuse to see a patient as a statistic. I work with them individually and I do what I can to help them. Yes, oncology patients sometimes don’t have great outcomes, but I believe in taking on the challenge and trying my best, no matter what the state of their disease.”
Carbajal Ocampo’s think-positive attitude is inevitably passed on to his patients, who he always tries to instill with hope while still providing them with a realistic panorama of their medical situation.
“A lot of how a patient responds depends on attitude,” Carbajal Ocampo said, adding that even if someone is facing death, the most important thing is that they enjoy a high quality of life — both physically and emotionally — no matter how little time they have remaining.
Pressed on the psychological effect his career has on him, Carbajal Ocampo admitted that there are times that he feels despondent and needs to step back a little from a case, but only temporarily.
“I have never walked away from a patient,” he said.
“I think that there is always something I can do for them, and the more severe their case, the more challenging it is, the more I want to accept the challenge.”
Even as a young child, Carbajal Ocampo knew he wanted to be a doctor, although at that time, oncology was not exactly what he had in mind.
Fascinated by the equipment and mastery of his family pediatrician, by age seven, Carbajal Ocampo had set his sights on learning to care for sick children.
Born in Mexico City, raised in Tapachula, Chiapas, and uprooted to Puebla in his early teens, school wasn’t always easy for the young Carbajal Ocampo.
But he knew that if he was to make it to medical school, he would have to apply himself 100 percent, even when the move from public education to a private high school came as a jolt and he suddenly found that most of his classmates were way ahead of him academically.
But Carbajal Ocampo never gave up his dream to study medicine, and by age 18, he was accepted into Puebla’s Autonomous Popular University’s medical school.
When Carbajal Ocampo earned his medical license in 1996, he still planned to study pediatrics, probably with a second specialization in pediatric surgery.
But after one year of social service in a remote Yaqui village of Vicam (population 9364) in the northwestern Mexican state of Sonora, he had a change of heart.
“One of the main things I did in Vicam was deliver babies, usually about two or three a week, and I realized that I was fascinated with the idea of helping to bring new lives into the world, and having the responsibility of caring for those new lives and their mothers in those first few minutes after birth,” Carbajal Ocampo said.
And so, when he began his residency at Mexico City’s esteemed Hospital Español, Carbajal Ocampo specialized in gynecology.
Carbajal Ocampo’s four-year residency at the Español were pleasant and life-changing.
It was there that he met his wife, Fabiola Hernández (they now have three daughters), and it was also there that he first studied under Francisco García Rodríguez, an oncological surgeon who he would inspire him to undertake a sub-specialization in oncology at the Hospital Juárez in the capital’s Colonia Magdalena de las Salinas.
“Working in oncology, especially two decades ago, was hard,” he admitted.
“For a lot of patients, there wasn’t all that much we could do medically. Since I was in gyn-oncology, most of my patients were breast cancer patients, and back then, a diagnosis of breast cancer was often a death sentence.”
Worse yet, since the Hospital Juárez is a state-run hospital that primarily caters to underprivileged patients, the vast majority of the women who Carbajal Ocampo treated were diagnosed in late stages of their disease, making their chances of survival even more grim.
But ever the optimist, Carbajal Ocampo tried to focus on finding medical solutions and learning from each surgery.
“I think the only way to approach a major challenge is to give it all you have,” he said.
“I think that when a patient puts their trust in our hands, we as physicians have a great responsibility to do everything we can to help them.”
When Carbajal Ocampo finished his second specialization in 2005, he ended up back at the Hospital Español, where he in now an attending in gyn-oncology and oversees the hospital´s gynecology resident program.
“In terms of gyn-oncology, a lot has changed in the last 16 years, mostly for the better,” he said, referring specifically to breast, ovarian and endometrial, which are the main cancers he treats.
In fact, today, almost all gynecological cancer patients in Mexico can be treated, even if their disease is in a late stage, and if the condition is diagnosed at an early stage, the chances of survival can be as high as 90 to 95 percent.
For now, most patients still require surgery, he said, but with targeted treatments and other new technologies, surgeries can be less aggressive and more effective.
“In the not-to-distant future, I think that surgeons and surgeries will become extinct,” said Carbajal Ocampo.
“I love doing surgery, but I am looking forward to the time when surgery isn’t necessary to treat cancer patients. After all, it is always the welfare of the patient that is a physician’s first concern.”