A Letter to My Doctors: You Don’t Know Me

A four-time cancer survivor writes a personal letter to her future doctors. She urges doctors to see her and not her diagnosis.

Dear Doctor,

You don’t know me. Yes, you’ve read through my medical records and I suppose you have been shocked, amazed, overwhelmed or rolled your eyes at the immensity of my profile and how difficult it will be to have me as your patient. But you are seeing the diagnosis I’ve had.

You are looking at my pathology reports. You have noted all my surgeries and my late-term side effects from my four bouts with cancer. But you don’t know who I am. You don’t know how hard I’ve fought and the fears I have had. You’re not aware of the many glorious moments I’ve been grateful for, nor do you realize the tremendous anxiety I have gone through after endless biopsies, CT scans and blood tests.

You don’t know me. You assume that I should just be grateful that I survived. You don’t know that with survivorship comes tremendous overpowering stress. With survivorship, you learn to live a very different life, one that can be moment to moment, event to event, doctor appointment to doctor appointment. Maybe I will have three months where I can truly live in the regular world that other humans who haven’t had a life-threatening disease live; being somewhat carefree and not afraid of seeing a lab coat or a message from my doctor on my answering machine. You don’t know me.

When I enter your office, you come in with my paperwork in-hand. You are astute at your craft. But you don’t know how to talk to me. I am a survivor but contrary to your belief, “You’ve been through this before so you should be used to it by now,” you are wrong. Every visit, every test, every “talk” I become wearier.

Yes, I am thankful for life, but my life is precarious, I walk on a pond that has a thin veil of ice over it. I’m unsure if any step I take will make me fall through and into the murky water. You don’t know me. When you share, “You’re one of the lucky ones, my cousin had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and her ovaries were fried from the radiation,” this isn’t something to joke about or try your best at light-hearted humor. You don’t know me. Giving me pity and saying, “You poor thing, I don’t know how you do it” isn’t what I want to hear as I sit trembling on the exam table waiting for the doctor coming in.

You don’t know me. Hearing you tell me that, “If it was me, I would have probably given up a long time ago” makes me feel like a freak and that my fight in your eyes wasn’t worth it. When you approach me but don’t recognize my pain emotionally, I do not feel you are being a quality clinician so please don’t share with me that you are “doing your best.” You don’t know me. When you enter the room with my life on paper and say, “Wow, this is like war and peace,” you make me feel guilty for my survivorship.

So please Doctor, when you take me on as your patient, think a little more about what a survivor goes through; what it truly means to be a survivor. Your words toward patients should have the same strength in them that we as survivors have to continue with on our journey. You don’t know me, but I’d like you to.

Sincerely,

A cancer survivor

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