The Human Side of Treatment

Cancer treatment often involves operating rooms, chemotherapy protocols, and high tech radiation therapy equipment. All of which have reduced cancer deaths and improved the lives of those who have been diagnosed with the disease.

My job – and it’s a great job — is talking with people being treated for cancer. What they comment on is not the equipment or the science involved in their care. Rather, they focus on the quality of the human interaction they have with their caregivers.

Those of us receiving cancer treatment want to connect with and feel kindness from our doctors, nurses, and therapists. We don’t need to be friends, but we want to sense that we’re somehow all in this together.

With cancer, this begins with hearing the diagnosis. It’s one of those frozen-in-time moments for the patient. A doctor’s compassion is recognized and remembered.

And every staff person has the capacity to affect the quality of care. I recently stopped by a doctor’s office to drop off some material. The receptionist was busy on the phone and didn’t bother to recognize my presence even though I was standing in front of her for several minutes. All she had to do was to smile or wave or give some indication that she recognized that I was a person and that she would be with me in a moment. Instead, she ignored me. I’ll remember that whenever I walk into that office.

I’ve also experienced some incredible kindnesses from the front office staff in medical practices. Many go out of their way to be both supportive and comforting. Although they didn’t directly treat my cancer, their kindness is often what I remembered on the drive home.

As important as human interaction is in any medical encounter, it’s especially important for those with cancer. Cancer patients are raw – they’re scared and their emotions are close to the surface. Every kindness from a medical professional is savored and every miscommunication causes pain.

I encourage patients to speak up and thank their doctors, nurses, therapists, and office staff when they sense genuine kindness and compassion. If you’re working with cancer patients, you aren’t allowed to have a bad day because your patients are almost always having a worse day. It’s not an easy job and we should acknowledge when it’s done in a way that maintains and often enhances our sense of humanity.

Reprinted with Permission of the Ithaca Journal
Original Publication Date: January 13, 2012