Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Being a cancer patient in clinical setting

I find Dr. David Servan-Schreiber’s description of being a cancer patient to be very apt,
I entered a colorless world. It was a world where people were afforded no recognized qualifications, no profession. A world in which nobody was interested in what you did in life or what might be going through you mind. Often the only interesting thing about you was your latest scan. I discovered that most of my doctors didn't know how to treat me as a patient and a colleague at the same time. At a dinner party one evening, my oncologist at the time, a brilliant specialist I very much liked, also turned out to be a guest. When I arrived I saw him turn pale, then get up and leave after some vague excuse. Suddenly I had the feeling that there was a club of the living and I was getting the message that I wasn't a member. I began to feel frightened that I was in a category apart, a category of people defined primarily by their disease. I was afraid of becoming invisible. Afraid of no longer existing, even before dying. Perhaps I was going to die soon, but I still wanted to live fully up to the end. (David Servan-Schreiber, Anticancer: A New Way of Life. New York: Viking Penguin, 2008. pp.17-8).
Servan-Schreiber is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he experienced being in a different world. I had an almost similar experience when I was with my oncologist in her clinic. She was not interested in the fact that I had studied theology in Boston, was a chaplain intern, had worked in a hospital setting, provided spiritual care and support for dozens of patients, and I am now feeling displaced as a cancer patient. She was not interested in my past, nor who I am. She was only interested in how soon I could get a CT scan for her to establish a new baseline (she said this repeatedly during our 2nd meeting), so that she could put me on adjuvant systemic treatment (she repeated this during our 1st meeting). I was just another cancer patient to her. Whatever I clung on to prove that I am a unique human being was in the process of being taken away in the clinic. At least, she did not ask my spouse to leave nor ask me to change into the hospital gown as my spouse and my street clothing were my last shred of evidence verifying my uniqueness as a human being. If I were to be in hospital gown and alone by myself, I might have felt like a faceless digit in the presence of my oncologist.

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