Young Kwang Chae: Working in a clinic taught me to celebrate patients, no matter their prognosis

Northwestern Memorial Hospital in July 2021. Dr. Young Kwang Chae, a Northwestern oncologist, and his team created awards to recognize patients during cancer treatment.
Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS
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As an oncologist who often works with patients walking the thin line between life and death, I am always humbled by working in the clinic. It’s where I constantly realize that my troubles are incomparable to the pain that my patients experience. However, the more I am humbled, the more I discover there is to learn. The more I learn about humility, the more I look forward to growth.

Among my patients is a middle-aged woman with lung cancer who has the epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR, mutation and no history of smoking. Cases like these generally have a good prognosis, as patients tend to respond well to targeted therapy. However, this patient was not responding to any of the therapies prescribed to her. Eventually, she took part in a clinical trial involving an antibody-drug conjugate targeting the EGFR mutation but unfortunately still failed to respond and was hospitalized. My team and I were worried for the patient, who seemed to be disappointed and tired from going through five therapies.

After talking with the patient, we decided to try one last combination of immunotherapies and chemotherapy reagents before she left for the hospice. The probability of this therapy working was very low, but I prayed for a good outcome regardless. When I saw her the week following her first treatment cycle, I was blown away by her improved condition. She no longer had difficulty breathing, and even more surprising, the subcutaneous tumor that was present on her chest was completely gone. My team and I reveled in the happy news our patient brought us, all our exhaustion melting away.

The patient and her family expressed how happy they were that the treatment seemed to be working. Within the grueling journey of cancer treatment, it was refreshing to see how the patient, her caregivers and our medical team united as one. Response to treatment is a blessing that should never be taken for granted and instead should be celebrated at every step. It is also a blessing to be able to share happy moments with patients. That week was one filled with learning, during which I was able to understand humility more deeply.

I would like to add, however, that a scan showed that the patient’s cancer had actually progressed. I was devastated when I heard this news. I had been so caught up in celebrating the happy news that this development hit me twice as hard. However, as I reflected on the situation, I realized that I can celebrate more than just the “successes” in a patient’s journey throughout treatment — that a patient’s attitude, spirit and endurance are always worth celebrating. With this realization, I started to envision an environment in which my team and I could celebrate and encourage patients and their caregivers. We started coming up with creative awards to present to them, such as “best smile,” “best attitude” and “sunshine.”


Patients and caregivers often light up and smile when they are recognized for things that often get overlooked. As I witnessed the positive effects of the awards taking shape, I began to dream about how wonderful it would be if more health care professionals engaged in such celebrations, becoming “pacemakers” for patients and caregivers in the marathon of cancer treatment. With this in mind, I founded a movement called Pacemakers, which is dedicated to cultivating creative encouragement and companionship for patients and caregivers on their treatment journey.

I recall when, during my medical training, I cried in a hospital emergency room while filling out the admission order for a leukemia patient because I felt so sorry for the patient’s suffering. Health care professionals must always think about their patients; once they begin to think that they have bigger fish to fry, they lose space in their hearts for patients.

At least in the clinic, I want to treat my patients like they are the only ones who matter in this world. I want to celebrate anything and everything there is to celebrate about them. This is why the award-giving tradition started by my team means so much. It is because of my patients, my colleagues and the beautiful relationships that form between us that my life continues to move toward humility. In the past, I had ambitions for recognition and success. But now, I know that happiness comes even from crawling slowly toward the finish line, so long as I am with people with whom I can laugh and cry.

My aspirations are ongoing and simple: to become a humble person.

Dr. Young Kwang Chae is an oncologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and founder of Pacemakers, an organization that encourages patient advocacy and the strengthening of doctor-patient relationships.

©2022 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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