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Failure to Communicate: I Have Cancer But I'm OK

Am I alone in wanting to reassure everyone I meet?
PUBLISHED February 10, 2016
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
Yesterday I had an early morning appointment with my oncologist at which she was going to tell me the results of numerous three- and six-month scans so that treatment decisions could be made. The scans had been taken the previous week and the anxiety from them was at an all-time high since one radiologist had spoken to me three times (once even calling me as I was getting ready for a breast MRI) and said that a biopsy was not needed, then needed and not needed again until further review.

I think a lot of you can appreciate how I felt.

As I was getting ready yesterday morning, I thought about what I could say to the doctor to reassure her that I was OK with the bad news.

Yes, I was worried about reassuring her.

That got me thinking about how patients communicate what they are actually feeling with their doctors, nurses, family and friends. Are most of them like me? Always saying, “I’m fine” and quickly changing the subject? Are more the complete opposite and letting everyone know the details of their experience?

Maybe it’s a woman thing. Or a denial thing.

All I know is that I caught myself thinking about my doctor’s feelings and laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of the conversation playing out in my head.

Doctor: The scan was suspicious and we think there’s a chance the cancer is spreading again.
Me: OK, I’m sorry you had to start your day with sharing this news.
Doctor: Yes, it stinks but not as much as your day.

That got me thinking honestly about the emotions that come along with a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis. Why wouldn’t I be nervous? Why wouldn’t I be scared and upset if the radiologist was right and there was reason to be suspicious? What doctor in her right mind would expect the patient to reassure her and not the other way around?Maybe the third time is the charm for me. Within the past month, there have been two other instances where it was abundantly clear I was holding back from those who love me. The first situation occurred when my older daughter returned to her out-of-state school and left behind two heart-wrenching poems about me and her; about how she doesn’t totally understand what is going on or what will happen and her observations and experience of my poor memory function while on Taxol (paclitaxel).

It is safe to say that I had no idea how she was feeling. I thought I was doing the right thing by reassuring her. I thought my devotion to exercise, putting on a smile and going on with living would help her ... not confuse her.

The other clue about failure to communicate came about when a dear friend of mine from college — one who I have loved steadily, if absently, for almost 30 years — thought my new hat-wearing attitude on Facebook meant I had found religion. I have no doubt my other distant friends believed the same thing.

It is very hard to say the words “I have cancer,” and let them sit there until the other person responds. As a mother, a woman and just as someone who cares about others, it is almost impossible to avoid the reassuring statements that everything is OK.

Sometimes things are OK, but sometimes they are not.

When they are not, it is a welcome event to have a friend ask how I'm doing and feel OK with actually telling the truth.
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