I work with a woman in her twenties who is battling breast cancer. I’m only a recent acquaintance, yet she always has a smile for me. And a real one, too. I never really knew anyone who battled a major cancer so young before, until I met her. She was a girl with long brown hair when I met her, and now she’s bald.
How does a person continue with life even when the unimaginable happens? Who helps them answer their questions and learn how to live with this news? So many times, there is much less emotional support available than people need.
I used to think that losing your hair was the worst thing ever. But when I look at this young lady, even bald she exudes strength and beauty from her pretty blue eyes. Her smile just as bright. The cancer may have changed her, but it didn’t take away anything that made her beautiful.
No matter what kind of awful treatment she is going through, she always manages to be honest while spinning everything in a positive direction, ultimately. I look at her behavior often and think “So that’s how people do it. That’s how they continue in the face of great challenges.” That’s how people continue living with hope even when it might be easier to become depressed.
She’s mentioned, on more than one occasion, how friendly and kind everyone at her treatment center is. I can imagine this helps her positive attitude tremendously. Unfortunately, not every person is so fortunate when they look for healthcare.
When healthcare hurts.
This woman’s positive attitude makes me think of another person I know battling disease:
my dad. My dad recently went on dialysis because he had zero kidney function. At first, the idea disturbed me quite a bit. My dad, the stubborn person who raised me, who once built a fence on the same day as surgery for thyroid cancer, hooked up to some scary machine. Tied to this machine for the rest of his life. That’s a big deal.
My mom and dad went through a lot of trouble to get him tested so he could get on the kidney donation list. After months of tests and doctor’s visits, the doctor’s verdict was “no.” I tried to get more detail from my mom. “Just no?” I asked. She was sure.
Feeling a bit angry and hurt by this circus we call a healthcare system, I discussed the situation with my husband. That dumb-headed doctor probably just gave up on my dad because of his age. Or maybe they have to prioritize because someone younger would “need it” more than he does.
My husband presented me with another explanation. Doctors are busy people, and maybe they get tired of explaining everything and they just want people to trust them. “At your dad’s age and with his medical history, any surgery is very risky,” he said. I had to admit, hearing my husband’s explanation sounded reasonable.
“So dialysis is actually the safest thing for my dad right now?” I asked my husband in disbelief.
“And it will actually prolong his life?” I said.
“Without dialysis, he would be dead right now.” he said.
After that discussion, I understood and accepted my dad’s dialysis. Why doctors can’t be bothered to have such discussions with their patients, I don’t have the knowledge to understand.
Yeah, I’m talking to YOU!
Come on! Part of being a doctor is having good listening skills. I’m not saying there aren’t some doctors out their with the bedside manner of Mary-Freakin-Poppins. There are. However, I have had way too many experiences with doctors that resemble some kind of interrogate-interrupt-prescribe pattern (heck, sometimes without the courtesy of the interrogation part). Would it kill ya’ to explain a little bit? If the profession is seriously that stressful, then something in the system needs to change in general.
Maybe we need to have counselors who do the emotional work for the doctors. Translators who explain things in plain English. I don’t know.
A little compassion goes a long way.
On to a more positive note. People in healthcare: whether you are nurses, doctors, pharmacists–whatever–you are extremely important people. You are in the position to empower patients or tear them down. Encourage or strike fear. You can be a good listener or a tyrant. And take a tip from my girl Annie: You’re not freakin’ dressed without a smile.
I appreciate kind doctors. I once wrote a letter of appreciation to the great doctor who got me through college healthy. I’ll never forget the eye doctor who didn’t charge me for follow-up appointments for an eye infection when I was very down on my luck. These people made a huge impact in my life, and I will always remember them fondly. And do you know why? Because this level of human compassion and decency has been the exception. They were extremely special people.
The power of thinking positively
The girl at my work who struggles with cancer ends all of her discussions on a high note. She looks for the positive. She searches for wonder and happiness, and so she finds it like a dandelion finds soil in a sidewalk crack.
Before I thought through my dad’s situation, I saw only the negative side of things. He can’t get on the donation list. He has to be on dialysis the rest of his life. When really I should have been thinking: It’s great that he has dialysis so he can be alive and with me right now. It’s wonderful that he can do dialysis at home instead of going to the clinic each time. How amazing that medicine has progressed to the point that we can give our loved ones a great quality of life even when they are missing organs as vital as kidneys.