No, 'They' Don't Understand How A Cancer Diagnosis Feels

December 16, 2019

Two-time cancer survivor gratefully shares her gratitude and discusses how they are getting better at helping cancer patients.

"They just don't get it. They do not really understand, unless, of course, they are a cancer survivor themselves." The term they includes the medical profession and the public at large, and even and especially our own loved ones sometimes. Honestly, though, the compassion and understanding are much better today than it was even a decade ago, and that is a very, very good thing if you are a newly diagnosed cancer survivor. Even though I wished my oncology doctors and nurses truly understood what I was feeling, in hindsight, it was probably a good thing that at least their emotions were under control. They could then look at my care and manage it objectively. Right?

The shock, anger, fear, anxieties and worry that comes with a cancer diagnosis are huge. Cancer is a major life-changing diagnosis. The problem is that there is rarely a 100% cure. The best we can hope for is NED (no evidence of disease) right now. A bone can be fixed. A heart valve can be repaired or replaced. Still, there are other people out there who are living with other kinds of diseases that are long-term and may eventually kill them. We are not alone.

As cancer survivors, we are not as alone with our anxieties as we think we are. I for one am grateful that the medical field is getting better at addressing the mental and emotional issues that come with everyone in our circumstances. More medical professionals are learning about the PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) that can come with a cancer diagnosis.

Nurse navigators and a team approach is becoming more common. Mayo Clinic has had a team-based approach for a long time. Even if the doctor does not have a lot of time one-on-one with patients, nurses are often allotted more time. Come in with a list of questions and something for writing down notes.

More mental and emotional coping tools are available than ever before. Studies about cancer and PTSD are being done, and there is progress. Medical staff is more aware of the emotional and mental issues, and they are getting better at asking and addressing these peripheral concerns that come with a cancer diagnosis. The use of oncology talk therapists and support groups are becoming more common too.

Patients still, and always will have the responsibility to let the people around them, including doctors and loved ones, know what they are experiencing. If we do not accept that we have to share all of our symptoms, it is unreasonable to expect to receive the help that we need, including help to address the cancer anxieties and fears. Personally, I was lucky to eventually find an oncologist who was also a fellow breast cancer survivor. She "got" what I was talking about when I brought up my fears and worries. Not every patient is so fortunate, but they are working to be better. I am grateful for that. Take a breath and try to give your diagnosis and the people around you a little time and patience.


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