Poems by former VCU Massey medical oncologist published
A collection of personal poems by the late Susan Mellette, M.D., who was a distinguished oncologist at VCU Massey Cancer Center, have been compiled by the author’s son and daughter and published in a book called Fighting Cancer One Patient at a Time: The Poems of Dr. Susan J. Mellette.
“I think she had a life worth memorializing,” said Peter Mellette, the son of Dr. Mellette. “She created all of these poems after working 12- to 14-hour days. She would go back to her office and either jot them down or sit at the typewriter and pour out her soul. I thought that it would be worth something to medical students, and certainly to cancer patients.”
Peter explained that his mother was always a writer. He believes she loved writing even before her interest in medicine began. The collection he and his sister compiled, with the assistance of a health writer, represents the struggles and defeats that their mother felt as a medical oncologist in the early years of cancer treatment.
“Part of the way that she dealt with the frequent losses, like of those patients who had metastatic disease, was that she was able to see there was hope in the future of treatment. She tried to instill that hope in her patients,” he said.
The book’s editor, Natalie Miller-Moore, said that the poems provoked thought about cancer care and the early years of women in medicine. She said, “There’s a lot of depth about patient relationships, rehabilitation and trying to give patients hope, realism and options.”
Dr. Mellette’s passion for her patients and her personal struggles are evident in the book’s poems. She wrote about her first meeting with a patient, interacting with her cancer patients at various stages of their disease and the importance of being a source of support for the patient’s family members during the course of treatment. She even wrote about missing her son’s birthday to be in the clinic for a patient.
Peter, who spent many hours of his childhood alongside his mother in her office said, “My mother had great compassion for her patients, she wanted the best for her patients.”
Dr. Mellette’s reputation of grace and empathy for her patients was well known among her peers.
“She was a unique physician. She was very devoted to her patients and her medical students,” said Walter Lawrence, M.D., a retired surgical oncologist, former vice chair of surgery at VCU and founding director of VCU Massey Cancer Center. Dr. Lawrence has very fond memories of working with Dr. Mellette as she built the foundation of the VCU Division of Cancer Studies, the academic unit that would later become a part of Massey Cancer Center.
As the division’s director, Dr. Mellette was integral to the development of a cancer research laboratory supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society and led a cancer education program that prompted many medical students to pursue oncology careers. She developed a wide range of patient support services, pioneering a multidisciplinary cancer rehabilitation program that would become a national model of comprehensive care for cancer patients. She retired in 1995 after working almost 40 years in medical oncology. She passed away in 2000.
Miller-Moore added, “Dr. Mellette not only pioneered the field of rehabilitation after cancer care, but she wrote about her experiences with immediacy, compassion and insight. Her poems are worth sharing for the perspective but also for the stories of years of cancer patients who benefited from her determination and medical expertise.”
Susan Mellette’s professional papers, along with a 1974 Richmond Times-Dispatch article about her poetry, are archived at the VCU Tompkins-McCaw Library. The book of her poems is the only widely available publication of her personal writings. Net proceeds from the book, available on Amazon, will go directly to scholarship funds in her name, including one for medical students at VCU School of Medicine.