“Some mommies have been chosen for an amazing journey because they are very special and strong and have cells in their body that divide extra fast and differently. When the cells finish their creation, these mommies turn into beautiful angels.”
Oncologist and hematologist Nancy R. Rubin sets a comforting, spiritual tone in a brief book she wrote to help children who lose a parent to cancer. Mommies Are Never Gone encourages them to reach beyond grief and include in their sadness and longing positive connections that will continue throughout their lives.
Rubin is familiar with the emotions cancer wrings from those it touches, including physicians. She’s been with Pacific Cancer Care in Monterey since 2003 and her father, Jerome Rubin, was an oncologist in Monterey; he died in 2018 of leukemia.
“He was a great inspiration,” says Rubin, a 1988 graduate of Carmel High School. Indeed, she was destined to become a doctor, although Rubin admits to flirting with journalism. She completed undergraduate studies at UC San Diego and went on to medical school at Western University of Health Sciences, followed by residency in Oakland and a fellowship at USC’s Norris Cancer Center.
Mommies Are Never Gone is Rubin’s first book. She helps raise two children when not treating patients.
Weekly: How did the book come about?
Rubin: It’s a thought that came to me. What could I do to be a part of this next part of the journey? It’s a way to give something to the kids so they can still be in touch with a parent they lost. I hear people say when they see hummingbirds or rainbows they see their mother – an angel watching over them.
When I was 6 or 7, I didn’t have any experience with death, but I’ve always been a really spiritual person. I feel like there are too many signs our spirits and souls are still out there. As a doctor you hear these stories. This is something for them – if they can believe it they will look for the signs, feel them. And it’s therapy for myself.
How do cancer doctors keep it together?
It’s a lesson you have to learn. When I first started I remember being devastated when we lost a patient. It’s good to have a creative outlet. I like to play guitar. The guitar has been a good friend. I like doing mom stuff. When I come home from work I have to turn it off.
Is it hard to give people bad news?
It’s hard. But a lot of oncologists are empathetic. With the initial diagnosis you are giving bad news, but you can give hope – there are treatments, new developments. You’re following them on the journey. It’s an art to give bad news. You have to do it in a soft way. You don’t want them to give up hope.
When it comes to surviving cancer, how much of it is the patient’s attitude and how much the treatment?
It’s a combination of both. There are patients who have that drive to live. I tell them to have something to look forward to during treatment.
The book is for kids, but how do you help a parent who is leaving a child behind?
That’s the hardest part. People do not want to leave their children. You have to work with their family. They are the ones who are going to guide the children through life. But they can say, “I’ll be the butterfly that approaches you or the bird at the window.” This is a hard topic. To have a book to give them makes it easier.
Cancer doctors must be strong.
All physicians have to be. Remember, a lot of our patients are cured – a majority of them. There are some big wins and that balances things out. That part does feel good. But the ones who are suffering are the ones I worry the most about. You do the best you can. The gratifying part is when a patient responds. Of course, it doesn’t always last. After you’ve been on the journey with them, it’s hard not to cry. We’re very close with our patients.
What have you learned as a doctor?
How precious life is. To focus on love, not hate. You get an appreciation for life, family, living life to its fullest – things we should all be doing anyway. You look at everything through different eyes.
Are you happy with the book?
Paul Richmond did a beautiful job on the illustrations. It’s simple and easy to read, but gets to the point I wanted to make.