As a writer I often turn to the work of philosophers, artists and poets to expand my understanding of the human experience. As a medical humanist my knowledge comes firsthand from patients, their loved ones and healthcare providers.
A Medical Humanist's Notes
Not being a clinician, I was afforded a lot of latitude at the cancer center in Bennington. Sometimes, the staff didn’t know what to do with this medical humanist among them. On one occasion, I suggested we present an exhibit of abstract art.
She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 2 years ago. Surgery and countless infusions of chemotherapy, with no sustained remissions, have not deterred her from continuing to work in her studio. Options for treatment are now limited as is her energy level.
Her doctor has requested a medical humanist consult to assess this patient’s understanding of treatment options and prognosis. “I was not prepared,” she tells me, “to hear my doctor say ‘I hoped I would not have to have this conversation with you.’”
A patient with advanced lung cancer asked his oncologist about how many years he could expect to live. The doctor replied, “How would you feel about 10 years?” The patient confessed he would be pleased with that prediction even though he had a hunch that it was too optimistic.
In 2002, around the time that the Writing is Good Medicine® program was launched at the cancer center in Bennington, the Center for Communication in Medicine was also offering the Doctors Conversation Hour to hospital physicians.
I am struck by the similarity between anxieties precipitated by the current COVID-19 crisis and facing cancer. In each, there’s a feeling of not being in control and an uncertainty about the future. These emotions often linger and can be difficult to manage.
We often hear the term “new normal” used in describing lifestyle changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, those words are familiar to cancer patients.
Ventilators and their vital role in saving lives of COVID-19 patients are ever present in the news. Listening to these compelling stories brought to mind an experience with a patient as he weighed the use of a breathing machine in his end of life care.
I recall a patient telling me that she played “peekaboo” with her cancer diagnosis. She described how hard it was to think about an uncertain future and the prospect of dying. She needed time to look away and catch her breath. How can any of us keep our eyes wide open without a reprieve when […]
“In times of crisis we summon our strength…
call on every resource…every forgotten image…
every memory that can make us know our power.”
– Muriel Rukeyser
How does one live with uncertainty when facing a life-threatening illness? Where does one find inner strength? Where does one look for supportive resources? Most patients will tell you that they frequently ask themselves these questions.