I’ve been to three cancer physicians the past three months since being diagnosed with breast cancer. (Let’s all agree not to call my experience a journey or battle okay?).
There aren’t any navigator programs for cancer patients here, so my dealings have been directly with physicians. I wish I had access to a nurse or nurse practitioner, but that is not how things are set up in British Columbia.
My first physician was a surgeon who was all business. Yes, I know surgeons aren’t famous for their bedside manner and as far as I can tell, she did a fabulous job cutting out the cancer out of my body. People say surgeons can’t get emotionally involved with their patients and still be able to cut them open, so I tried my best to understand this. She reviewed my results with me too quickly for my muddled head, but thankfully I saw my family physician a few days later and she translated the pathology and my surgeon’s scribbles into a language I could understand.
My second cancer physician was the medical oncologist (shortened to the funny-sounding MedOnc in the cancer world). I mostly saw her resident, not her. This oncologist kept calling me Ms. Robins which was disconcerting and made me feel like she was talking to my mother. She was brisk to the point of being dismissive. I don’t need chemo so she didn’t have a lot of time for me and waved my silly questions away. It is true that she had other patients to see who had more serious kinds of cancer, so I tried my best to be understanding of her approach. I took my puny little cancer and slunk away as fast as I could.
I have been a mess after each of these appointments, hand-wringing and second-guessing everything the doctors told me and ruminating on every word they said for days afterwards. Ask my sweet husband – this has not been fun. Frankly, I have been acting like a wounded animal. I realize I was struggling to trust what surgeon and medical oncologist told me because I did not sense they cared about me. Well, maybe they did care about me, but they didn’t demonstrate they cared about me. Also, I’m not a good mind-reader, so any caring they might have in their hearts went entirely undetected by broken (and admittedly-sensitive) me.
Yesterday I dragged my demoralized self to the hospital to meet yet another physician – this time a radiation oncologist. The nurse ushered anxious me into the clinic room. The first thing she did was she asked me if I wanted a warm blanket. A warm blanket! I love warm blankets. This appointment was off to an unusual start. My shoulders instantly relaxed and I breathed a bit easier, cosy under my coveted blanket.
Next, my new doctor knocked on the door and introduced herself to both me and my husband. She was genuine and lovely. She reviewed my pathology results in regular person language, leaning on gardening metaphors and pausing to ask what questions I had. She asked me what kind of writing I did. She patted me on the leg a few times, which gave me great comfort. (There’s not enough healing touch in health care. To me, that simple touch gave me a little peek into her caring heart).
She asked me if I wanted to ask my list of questions first, or if I wanted her to explain things and then I could ask any remaining questions afterwards. (I chose the latter). A few times I started to say something and stopped, worried about interrupting her – and she immediately paused and gently said: yes, yes, what did you want to say? She did not appear rushed in any way, even though she had a roomful of patients in the waiting room. She even shared her email address so I could ask any follow up questions when I got home.
By the end of the appointment, the wounded animal in me had disappeared. The kindness settled me down. I felt connected to my new doctor and that connection was blossoming into the beginning of trust. This is more than merely being nice – it is about laying the foundation for a relationship.
All the little actions helped to heal my fragile heart – from the warm blanket, the introductions, her gentle approach, her hand on my leg and the way she held space for my questions. All this so-called soft stuff is so much more than just kindness. With her words, gestures and actions, this physician was demonstrating respect and caring too. It was not only what she did, but how she did it.
I might still have cancer, but I am finally at peace for the first time in a long time. This is because I feel taken care of. These little things may seem like nothing to you, but in my current state of heightened vulnerability, they mean just about the world to me.