It’s hard to imagine an oncologist would find humor in his daily practice. Imagine dealing with cancer patients every day, breaking a myriad of bad news to mothers, wives, children. Or having to say, after so many energy-draining, soul-sucking chemo sessions, that the meds are just not working as everyone had hoped.
But Dr. Wilfredo Liangco realized in his years being a cancer specialist that one can look at stressful realities in a different light. Not to make fun of other people’s tragedies and suffering, but find the amusing and the funny in the daily hospital grind. In Doc Will’s case, these sometimes hilarious musings, come to him whenever he blogs.
“At the end of the day, I would write something and when I do, nagkakaroon ako ng bagong perspective,” he tells ANCX. “Then I'm able to reflect and look at these experiences with a fresh set of eyes.”
Doc Will has been blogging since his years as a medical intern in the mid-2000s, allowing him to accumulate enough material for a book. During the pandemic, he found the time to sit down and work on a manuscript that has led to the publication of his first collection of essays: “Even Ducks Get Liver Cancer and Other Medical Misadventures,” published by Milflores Publishing.
The book, described as “a candid and hysterical account of the realities of life in and out of the Philippine General Hospital,” is the talk of literary circles. “The gift of dark humor is a difficult thing to handle, and only a few Filipino writers wield it with panache,” says the esteemed poet and literature professor Dr. Marjorie Evasco-Pernia. “But in [Liangco’s] hands, this penchant for exaggerating the taboo and giving one final ironic twist to the knife does not fail to provoke uneasy laughter, leading to a more serious attention on the structural poverty that afflicts many Filipinos seeking public health service.”
Dr. Liangco graduated from the UP College of Medicine before spending his Internal Medicine residency and fellowship in Oncology at the Philippine General Hospital. He currently holds his private practice at the Mary Mediatrix Medical Center in Lipa City, at Manila Medical Center, and at QualiMed Hospital in Santa Rosa, Laguna.
To hear the 42-year old doctor say it, “Even Ducks Get Liver Cancer” also offers a glimpse of his own life. It starts with a story from his childhood then goes on to tell stories from his med school days at the UP College of Medicine, his residency training in Internal Medicine and as a fellow in PGH, and from his early private practice. We spoke to the debuting author recently and he talked to us about how Friendster got his writing career going, how his father’s liver cancer moved him to specialize in oncology, and what he wants readers to take away from his real life stories.
“Even Ducks Get Liver Cancer” right off the bat sounds like dark humor. What’s the story behind the title?
As an oncologist, one of our roles is to disclose the diagnosis to our patients, tell them if their condition is improving, if the treatment is optimized. But in some cases, the cancer returns. Liver cancer, for one, is a recurrent cancer. Just when the patients thought they’re cured or in remission, after a few years, the cancer comes back. At some point, the patients get really disheartened.
When [my fellow doctors and I] were training, sometimes we found ourselves at a loss for words. How else do we tell our patients, “Your cancer is back”? Or “You’re not doing very well.” There’s this line in one of the textbooks in China that goes, “Even ducks get liver cancer.” At some point, ginamit ko na ang line na yun kasi wala na talaga akong masabi—which is ill advised. Who would get comforted by the fact that in China even ducks get liver cancer? It is a ridiculous statement to me and it just reflects the ridiculousness of this book, so I decided to make that the title.
How did the book come to be?
I started blogging when I was a medical intern in 2006. I used to have a blog on Friendster, of all places. [The social networking app] was hot at that time. I had four readers—all of whom were my friends. Sabi nila, “Nakakatawa naman ang mga sinusulat mo.” Sabi ko, “For all four of you, I will keep on writing.”
Then Friendster was spammed by pornographic material, so I left and transferred to Blogspot, and then eventually I put up my own WordPress blog. From 2006, I’ve accumulated enough material. Then when the pandemic hit, I had time to put everything together. So it took me almost 14 years to write this book.
During the writing workshops with Jessica Zafra and Professor Marjorie Evasco, they sort of gave me an idea how to go about [writing the book]—choose the best that I’ve written over the past few years. I had to edit and rewrite most of them though, turn my blog entries [to fit the ] book format. Then when I was done with the manuscript, I looked for a publisher. It so happened that Milflores was looking for manuscripts, so I decided to submit mine. Luckily, I did not have to try out in any other publishing houses.
What can readers expect from your book?
When I started blogging, I wanted to let people know that there's more to me than being a doctor. That I have a life outside the hospital. Then when I became a resident and a fellow, I felt like I had to write about the hospital setting, but not directly about the field of medicine.
So I would write about my friends in the coffee shop, whining about our bosses, about backbiting, scenes in the residents’ call room, issues of residents and young doctors. I try to stay away from patient care because I'm concerned about data privacy and confidentiality. But eventually I included a couple of patient stories in the book para lang masabi na talagang doktor ang nagsulat nito.
Was it your intention to write a funny book?
Actually, I did not plan to market it as a funny book. But when I looked at the back cover, Milflores Publishing put it there: “Blunt,” “Hilarious.” So na-pressure ako bigla kasi people would think that it is a book of humorous stories. But it somehow turned out to be like that because those who have read the book said natawa naman daw sila. Slice of life. A bit of humor, a bit of drama.
What’s your favorite story in the book?
When we were in med school, of course people were very competitive. I was surrounded by geniuses. Then there was an urban legend that your class ranking would predict what you would be in the future. For example, if you’re at the top of the class, you will be a researcher or an academician. Middle of the class ranking would be clinician. And then if you’re at the bottom, you will become an abortionist. Since ayokong maging abortionist, I told myself I have to do well in class.
Did you always dream of becoming a doctor?
I was thinking of going into the academe or in corporate, but I was not totally ruling out medicine, so I took up Psychology in college to allow a bit of flexibility. But most of my college blockmates took up the National Medical Admission Test (NMAT). I decided to take it with them and passed. It wasn’t the original plan but I grew to love it.
When did you discover your penchant for writing?
I took the usual route of becoming part of the high school and college newspaper. Then I had three units of electives in UP Diliman so I decided to take up Short Story Writing at the university’s Institute of Creative Writing. When I was in the College of Arts and Letters and I would see the Creative Writing majors, para akong si Arielle sa “Little Mermaid,” I wanted to be part of that world.
Is writing a way for you to destress? Or is it just creative outlet?
I actually just enjoy it. I enjoy the process of writing down [my thoughts], even if no one's reading them. Until now I still keep a blog…During the pandemic, I was able to write almost every day. Now, medyo back to normal na ang clinics, I write every three days or once a week.
Why did you decide to specialize in oncology?
My dad was diagnosed to have liver cancer when I was in residency training in internal medicine. When it was time to choose which fellowship to go into, I decided to go into oncology mostly to gain access to clinical trials. It turned out to be a good decision. At that time, my father’s condition was deteriorating and I was able to maximize what I can do for him. I was an oncologist in training at that time so I knew what to do. He died in 2012, a year before I graduated.
Whose books can we find on your bedside table?
I’m currently reading Alice Munro, who’s a Nobel Prize-winning short story writer. She writes mostly serious stuff about relationships, usually set in Canada. I also like Ray Douglas Bradbury who writes sci-fi and very whimsical stories.
What would you like readers to take away from your book?
My primary goal really is for readers to enjoy reading it. For it to be fun for them. I did not want it to be difficult to read. There are certain books that takes you a while to finish either because it’s too hard to swallow or medyo jargon heavy. That was one of the challenges for me when I was writing this book. I wanted those who are not in the medical profession to be able to enjoy it. I want them to just be entertained, enjoy it from start to finish.
Photos courtesy of Dr. Will Liangco