I still get it as I struggle to type, wrap the bp cuff around, and wrap myself in gown, mask and respiratory precaution isolation procedures with one hand – the other casted in 30 degrees of palmar flexion making it as useful as a balancing table with light pincer grip – those comments like, “it could be worse” , don’t seem to make it feel easier -the nausea being quite overwhelming initially as I worked without pain meds to keep my mind sharp and it all seems harder. There is the hospital infectious disease hand washing patrol who cringe when they see my 2 week old cast but I proudly produce my xx lrge plastic gloves - always a way! Then there are those wonderful people who get it and allow us to laugh at the crazy things life throws at us…..
That takes me back to those early days in cancer diagnosis with the funniest comments. As a doctor, I certainly knew about cancer but I had a lot to learn about what it felt to have your life on the line and everything you ever worked for and held precious, taken away, turned upside down with uncertainty meeting you at so many corners. Decision-making was something I had trained for years to do. Trained in Special Competency in Emergency Medicine, I could make adrenaline-pumped decisions – but I had never faced the worst decisions – my own health with a loss of control that felt like dreaded freefall sometimes.
So, people felt they should advise me: I was in severe defense mode which didn’t help - no one I knew had been in this position.
Everyone seemed to know someone “who had what I had” – unfortunately, I know too much – I knew the surgery they had or the age or lack of chemo meant it was not the same. I could not say anything but be angry inside. Frustrated that they couldn’t see it , trying to realize they wanted to help. “I can give you their number” they would add….. I couldn’t talk to someone who didn’t understand the level of understanding I had at that point. I trusted my colleagues 100% - they were my resource surgically – I could talk with them.
“I have a gift for you – some resource pamphlets” – I **%$ know the resources – I’m a doctor – just hug me! I’m a real person too. It was those people who saw me as the real authentic, hurt human being that were special – many were scared too at the beginning, that was ” a fear of getting close” reaction.
“So many more people have cancer nowadays” is another statement I never perfected my answer towards. It did not make me feel better in the least. On uncovering a painfully fatal family history of young ovarian cancer with my BRCA mutation, I had trouble agreeing with their statement. My past was certainly littered with cancer before hopes of a cure. I simply felt fortunate that I had the privilege of treatment and so much more hope than my earlier relatives.
“How are you eating differently since cancer?” many would ask. No, my food did not cause my cancer. I crave control like all of us and cancer gives us so little control – it comes upon us as an unfortunate random aberrancy in cell division. We know carcinogens like smoking are more likely to make this happen but let’s not try extrapolating that to the microwave or TV screen. I was told that I was lucky to get this far with such a BRCA mutation so healthy eating and exercise I continue, address stress and live in the acceptance that life has randomness that we will never be able to control.
“I take naturopathic supplements to prevent cancer or prefer thermograms” was my biggest internal emotional confrontation. How do I handle these people? Everyone has a right to their own decisions but if you looked carefully, I think the seething steam was escaping from my ears as I heard this. It took every cell in my body to approach this in a professional manner to enable the person to see both sides and see the scientific evidence of health prevention in addition to their chosen additives. Remarkably, helping these people see the benefit of medical prevention and harmonize an approach can be incredibly rewarding. I have calmed too to be less hurt inside as my own wounds are less fresh.
“You will have to learn some crafts for your spare time” was a comment as I started my disability soon after my diagnosis. As you know, focusing was something that was very difficult as I struggled to put together layers of bad news. I had to be constantly reminded that it was now time for me to be the patient , not to feel guilty and to understand that someone else could do my job for a while and it could be handled without me. This had the flip reaction of loosing a very fulfilling part of my life and learning to love a person without that. It has meant that I remind colleagues daily of the privilege of being a doctor, getting my uncertain career back felt like the day I got into medical school – never will I forget or take that for granted.
“My kids can tutor your kids with schoolwork” – What did they miss? The reason my kids are not coping in school is because of me - exams may need to be deferred, concentration is poor .The stress of cancer and the uncertainty it brings needs a hug and understanding, not tutoring. They need a trip out to the movies or a sleepover if you want to help. Don’t forget them, they are hurt too – it’s not just me going through cancer.
Maybe some of these hit a chord. Seriously though, they hurt at the time; now I am able to laugh at the reactions I had. We are all unique in our journeys. Fortunately, after the rain, comes the best sunsets. I am not always talking about ideal outcomes but that magic you feel as you see all the good things around you and awaken with adversity. I can understand how people react when terrible news hits and how a listening ear and empathy can help. Being a real human being and authentic self as well as a doctor is the beautiful sunset that came out of my terrible rainstorm and I love it even more.