Compassionate Care Goes A Long Way When Receiving Treatment for Cancer

February 10, 2021
Anna Mahjar-Barducci

A patient with cancer recalls how the love her care team showed her during her treatment made such a difference in her journey to recovery. Her hope: That more patients with cancer around the world can find doctors who treat them as a person, and not just a case.

On Jan. 2, 2020, I was told that I had a suspicious mass in my breast. I knew right away that I had breast cancer. I was 38 years old, and a mother to a 10-year-old girl. Till then, I had always been healthy, and cancer was something I heard about only on TV. My whole world collapsed. I did not know what to do, where to seek a cure, and whether any cure was available at all. The doctor, seeing my lost and dismayed state, said: "The worst thing is to leave a patient alone." He then took his phone and called the chief of the Breast Cancer Unit at Santa Chiara Hospital in Pisa, Italy.

Within five days, I was at Santa Chiara Hospital. I was scared and still lost, but a smiling nurse accompanied me to do the biopsy. She held my hands tightly in hers, while the needle was hurting as it penetrated deep inside my breast. A few days later, while awaiting the biopsy results, the hospital called me at home to invite me to come meet the surgeon. When I arrived for the appointment, the surgeon knew my entire file, and – still clinging to hope – I asked him if there was any chance that the biopsy would still turn out to be negative. He looked at me, and told me that regardless of the biopsy result, he would never leave me with such a mass in my breast. Those few clear words somehow comforted me and gave me the feeling that before me was someone who cared for me.

Several days later, on January 16, I was diagnosed with invasive carcinoma. I did not know what invasive meant. The surgeon gave me the news, in his office, and then held my hand. I could not process what I'd heard. I went back home and the day after I returned to the hospital, to get more information. Was I going to die? I remember approaching the nurse, with a request to consult the doctor. I was confused and didn't feel well. A few minutes later, the surgeon left the operations ward and rushed to talk to me. When he saw me, he took me by the hand and accompanied me to the psycho-oncologist, who since then escorted me along the entire path that led me to surgery, chemo, radiotherapy and eventually recovery.

From that moment onward, that cancer building was my home. In the month of preparation for surgery, I had to visit the hospital quite frequently, and I slowly became no longer confused and lost. The surgeon, the psycho-oncologist, and all the other doctors of the unit worked as a team to create a safety net around me. They were there for me. Nurses that had I never met before knew my name and were organizing all the appointments for me. They would call me at home: "Hi Anna, how are you? Can you come for the blood test at 10 am? Thank you, my dear." The hospital's breast cancer association volunteers would ask me how I was feeling, and during one test and another, I made friends in the corridor of the hospital. The hospital then became and looked like any other place; a place where I could socialize, sometimes cry, but also laugh, make memories, and establish true and long-lasting friendships.

On February 20, I underwent surgery. I was scared and nervous, but the psycho-oncologist came to visit me in my hospital room, as did the department head. Several nurses also came to see me, and one even brought me a jar of homemade fig jam. Then I was brought to the operating room. I remember laughing, hearing a nurse making a joke, before falling asleep. Five hours later, I woke up, feeling cold. The tumor had been removed. I was reborn.

Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis is truly devastating. A woman feels lost and in emotional turmoil, wondering how she can ever deal with the disease, parenting, her relationships, and her job. Distress continues even after the initial shock of diagnosis has passed. As a woman embarks on what is often a lengthy treatment process, sometimes accompanied by physical changes, she may find herself faced with new problems.

The breast cancer unit at the Hospital Santa Chiara in Pisa provides an integrated multidisciplinary path and an environment where the patient does not feel alone, is spared the anguish of scurrying between different places to get medical appointments, but instead is accompanied by a team of experts that becomes a second family. At the breast cancer unit in Pisa, I not only found comfort for myself, but also for my family, which also received the emotional support that they needed to care for me during therapies.

Today, a year since the diagnosis, and following surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy, I still have five years ahead to end the hormone therapy. The doctors became part of my family. They send me messages during the holidays, and we exchange opinions on different topics. Looking back, I can say that my recovery was facilitated not only via the medical treatment, but also via the care, and love that I received from the doctors of the Pisa breast cancer unit, whose main philosophy is based on the deep understanding that a patient is a person, and an individual, not a "case" that they only have to solve medically.

A doctor in Pisa once told me that the best compliment a doctor can receive is to be called a humanist. I feel that in the most stressful period of my life, I indeed found humanist doctors that didn't treat just the disease, but saw me, and provided the emotional support that I needed, never letting me feel alone.

I hope my sisters around the world, who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, can one day experience the same treatment.

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