“I don’t need this right now,” he said as I finished telling my patient the plan of his care. He had been quiet. I sighed and made my way back to my chair to settle down. Sitting down, I let my mind wander. It’s not easy to change things midstream but I think oncologists should re-examine when prompted subtly or blatantly, to what they are actually saying to a patient. I started to eliminate the stressors that plague every day practice. It’s a busy clinic, 40 odd some patients to see, bouncing between good and bad news. We were both quiet. In his silence I sensed his resentment, and I felt sad. Behind his silence, there was anger.
He fidgeted. I watched him remove his cap, stifled by the news I had just delivered. They try to teach you this in medical school as my mind raced through my training (14 years), empathy they called it. As a physician I have learned not to depend only on my training to help my patients but also on my life experiences that have brought me to where I am. I searched for something within my life that he could relate to; I know adversity and I know anger. I looked specifically for strengths that I had understood at his age when I myself had faced difficult situations. Yes, I thought quietly, I know where you are. You’re angry. I let that emotion into me, a little bit of self-exposure, and the patient and I became one. Sometimes it’s hard to invite a complete stranger into your own home, but anger was not a stranger to me.
I was young when I was touched by a war – the Gulf crisis as it is referred to. I was angry then, like a young person would be if their life had been interrupted by something they had no control over. Cancer is a war. It demands a constant engagement of every aspect of our humanness to fight. It does not mean we fight without emotion. It does not mean we are raving lunatics either. It’s a constellation of problems, an inconvenience, a cost, and an interruption. It puts a halt on education, careers, motherhood, retirement, and vacation. It consumes time, money, and emotions. There is never a good time for it, and there never will be. Empathy is a deep connection that exists between two humans where one can show true understanding and bring meaning to a difficult situation. Empathy is not observed it is felt.
We sat quietly. Nothing more needed to be said. In the end, like a spilt jug of water on the floor, we both got up and started to pick up the pieces and clean the mess. Cancer, you can’t defeat the human spirit. Cancer, you are just in the way. Cancer you are not winning anything. Cancer, you have a lot to answer to. Naive is my scientific brain, just as bravery is when facing a formidable foe. I am not the one to bring cancer to its knees but I do believe that those who suffer from it do that daily.