the gentle hearts will help us heal in the end

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A painting given to my daughter, a gentle soul who is entering her third year of nursing school.

It is a commonly held notion that patients will only give feedback when care is either very bad or very good. Those who have ordinary experiences do not usually take the time to write a letter or fill out a comment card.  I’d like to commit to speaking up when things go well, as well as when they go poorly.  Here’s my story of a perfectly ordinary appointment.

Today I had time booked with a radiation oncologist at the cancer centre.  I think appointments with oncologists strike fear into most people.  It must be a strange job to be an oncologist and have people show up in your office terrified to see you.

This was my first time back at the cancer centre since my last day of treatment.  On the drive there, I was an anxious mess.  I drove as fast as I could in bumper-to-bumper Vancouver traffic and loudly played a Tragically Hip live album on the car stereo to give me some moxie.

Courage, my word
It didn’t come, it doesn’t matter
Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time

My regular radiation oncologist was on holidays, so I was booked into see someone new.  I woke up this morning awash with anxiety thinking about this new doctor. What if he wasn’t kind? And yet another new person looking at my poor boob and this time a man to boot? Great. I might as well be marching through the cancer centre with no shirt on with the amount of dignity I have left.  I had to go to the appointment by myself, as my husband had to remain at home to look after our son. Being alone never helps my monkey brain either.

I eyed my bottle of Ativan before I left. Isn’t it ironic that the main reason I pop anti-anxiety pills is when I have an appointment at the hospital? I decided instead of taking a pill to park a few blocks away from the cancer centre and walk to see if the trek would help settle me down (it did).

I hiked through the leafy residential neighbourhoods, grabbed an iced coffee and snuck in the back through the parkade elevator. The sight of all the people with cancer waiting in the lobby always makes me sad. In fact, the whole building makes me sad. It isn’t my favourite place to go.

I dutifully checked in with the receptionist, who was pleasant enough, and sat down for about three minutes before my name was called. I have to say that the radiation folks are all very efficient – there’s very little waiting in that department. The nurse (I think?) who fetched me asked how I was doing. She didn’t share her name or her role and I didn’t have the energy to ask. We chatted a bit about burned boobs and fatigue and she left me alone in the room to change into a gown. The radiation oncologist knocked and came in a few minutes later.

He was a young physician with a gentle manner. He introduced himself and shook my hand.  He sat down in the chair while I was perched on the treatment table. I knew this was my last radiation oncology appointment and so I had my notebook with my list of questions for him.

In total, he spent almost half an hour with me. He never appeared rushed or glanced at the clock. He was both professional and friendly. He smiled and made eye contact. Except for my physical exam, he remained seated and clearly answered all my questions. It reminded me how important communication is for physicians. It must be challenging to read a patient when they first meet them to figure out how to talk to them like they aren’t stupid, but in a way they understand. Translating recurrence rates, statistics and risk factors into layperson terms takes talent and skill.

He wasn’t rushed and didn’t seem to try to be wrapping the appointment up in any way. I never felt as if I was intruding on his time. He was there for me for the entire half an hour. He said a number of times – if you ever want to come back and see us, just give us a call. He shook my hand again when he got up to leave.

I walked back to my car feeling calm and relaxed. I felt as if I was taken care of, mostly because of how this young physician behaved and not what he did. His friendly, calm, unrushed manner turned what could have been a stressful and upsetting oncology appointment into a perfectly fine oncology appointment.

I assert that the so-called bedside manner matters a lot. While our interaction might have been just an ordinary appointment, it meant much more than that to me. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: it is these little things – a handshake, a smile, patience, eye contact, a calm manner – that mean a lot to us vulnerable, broken patients, every single time.

Medicine might cure (sometimes), it doesn’t always heal. This oncologist was not only a specialist, smart and brimming with lots of medical knowledge, but he was a healer too. And right now, I mostly need to heal.

Cheers to all the healers out there, who comfort and alleviate suffering just by holding space for their patients. Holding space is the ultimate demonstration of respect for patients.  I strongly believe that it is these gentle hearts who will help us heal in the end.

once i ate a doughnut

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the doughnut in question

It was your shitty lifestyle that gave you cancer, and if you don’t change your shitty lifestyle, your cancer will recur.

This was the key message to a two-day workshop for cancer patients that I attended last week. Half way through day two, I stood up and walked out. If my time here on Earth is limited, I don’t need to spend my days being lectured to about this kind of sanctimonious crap.

Instead, I went for a long walk, met my husband for a lunch (I had a salad, just for the record, since I’m feeling defensive now), went for another long walk along the beautiful Vancouver seawall and met up with a dear friend for tea. This seemed like a healthier way to spend my time.

I signed up for the workshop for my Summer of Healing after my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment this year.  I thought: I’ll show up and be open to learning. I lasted a day and a half before the blaming, finger pointing and judgmental tone of the lectures from the ‘experts’ did me in.

The room was filled with people with cancer who had lived healthy lifestyles. I’d call this the classic west coast way of life – in this case, there were many fit, nutrition-conscious women who happened to have breast cancer. (And they were pretty pissed off about it, too). There were also three young people whose cancer had recurred.

The presenters did not understand their audience. I’m not sure how blaming people with cancer for getting cancer in the first place is helpful. Patients do not need more fodder to add to our own feelings of guilt.   We are also not stupid.  We know that being active and eating healthy is important.  No kidding.

Even if I smoked, drank, was obese, ate too many doughnuts, warmed up my food in plastic containers in the microwave, does this mean that I deserved to get cancer or that I am less deserving of care or compassion for my cancer?

The ‘it is your own fault you got sick’ mentality is what is feeding the repeal of Obamacare in the US with the BCRA Act. I follow this awful Act carefully on Twitter and feel deeply outraged for my American friends. We’d be so hooped if we lived just a few kilometers to the south in the US – my husband and I are both self-employed, we have a kid with a disability and now I have cancer.  We’d also be bankrupt if we didn’t have proper insurance coverage.

This patient-blaming attitude is pervasive everywhere, including in Canada. (Although I’m extremely grateful for our Medicare, which is our quasi-universal health care coverage for hospital and physician office care. This means I don’t have to pay for my medical care because I got sick).

“Maybe you will live a healthier lifestyle afterwards,” a friend said to me on the phone, not so helpfully, when I was first diagnosed. I was lying on the couch recovering from surgery. This implied blame is thankfully mostly unspoken, but was the overt attitude at this ‘cancer care’ workshop.

The truth: cancer is a combination of genetics, bad luck, rogue cells – and yes, environment and lifestyle are factors too. But there is no one cause of all cancers – cancer is much more insidious than that. Our own cells turn feral on us for all sorts of reasons. If researchers knew what that reason really was, we would already have a cure for cancer. You can’t prevent cancer by doing any one thing.  (Read about a recent study from John Hopkins about the topic of risk factors here).

The real reason I think people are blamed for getting cancer is because we are all terrified of becoming vulnerable, needing help and dying. We think that we can do all sorts of things to avoid death.  Alas, there is a randomness to living that is out of our control. There was a 1 in 700 chance I’d have a kid with Down syndrome, but I had him anyhow. (Many feel my son’s birth could have been prevented, but that’s for another blog post). The current stat is that 1 in 9 women in Canada get breast cancer. I happen to be one of those women.

I know I have lived through many women’s biggest fear. Once you start with the boob-squishing mammograms, the idea that you might have breast cancer begins floating around in your mind. I thought I was immune from breast cancer because I breastfed all my children. That was an arrogant, naïve and mistaken notion.

I’m not suggesting you don’t live a healthy life, whatever that means to you. That would just be silly. But…stop the patient blaming when people do get sick. None of us are going to escape this world without acquiring some sort of illness and eventually dying. This is part of life.

My healthy lifestyle changes since getting cancer include: holding those who showed up for me close, more hugging, going to therapy to finally figure out how to love myself, meandering on long walks, marvelling at sunsets and remembering to breathe.  I still eat cheese, lie around in my bed watching Netflix and enjoy a tall glass of cider. Everything in moderation, folks. My best advice is to go forth and live your life under the guise of joy and not fear.

Cancer workshop organizers, shaming patients is not going to lead to behaviour change. (See this great post by Carolyn Thomas about ‘non-compliant’ patients).  Being perfect does not prevent cancer.  Try treating those who are suffering with respect and compassion. Suspend your pious judgment and meet people where they are at.  People who have cancer need your help (not your disdain) to learn how to heal, inside and out.