Tuesday, March 29, 2011


No one should be allowed to treat a disease they haven't had.

That phrase has arisen more than once in cancer support groups I've facilitated. People get annoyed, frustrated, and even injured by the insensitive behaviors of some healthcare practitioners. It's not that anyone's uncaring; the fact is that unless you've been there, you don't know what it's like.

In a series appearing in the NY Times Well Blog, cancer researcher Dr. Peter Bach relates accompanying his wife Ruth through Cancerland. Each installment reveals another aspect of living with cancer, especially what people actually suffer from--cancer's emotional consequences.

Dr. Bach tells of going with Ruth to her first radiation appointment. They were first seen by a young medical resident who recited every point of her history. This was painful for them, and, when you think about it, unnecessary. He writes, "[the resident] was oblivious to the agony he was causing us as he perfunctorily rattled off the events…" But that's what doctors do, right? That's part of the medical ritual. The problem is that many who perform it are unaware of the suffering it can cause.

A half-dozen medical doctors have been members of cancer patient support groups I've facilitated. Finding themselves on the less familiar end of the stethoscope, every one of them said, at some time and in some way, "I had no idea…"

The only popular representation of this issue that I've seen is the film, now twenty years old, "The Doctor." William Hurt plays a rather cold, aloof surgeon. After learning he has cancer, his attitude begins to shift. He gradually develops compassion such that he'll never return to his previous style of practice.

Fortunately, the development of compassion doesn't require a life-threatening illness. We can contact and appreciate cancer, say, without physically having it, for it's emotionally contagious. Peter Bach suffers from his version of Ruth's cancer. That is, he's now touching the semipermeable membrane that separates the experience of patient and doctor.

I'd predict that as fine a physician as he's been, this good man will now find even more compassion in his dealings with patients. I hope, as a couple of commenters suggested, that he gently educate the medical resident who dragged him and Ruth through the pain of their history.

1 comment:

  1. Buddhist nun Pema Chodron wrote in The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, "Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It's a relationship between equals…[it] becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity."

    I distinctly remember watching "The Doctor" when I visited your support group seven years ago. What a powerful experience.

    I too hope Peter Bach gently educates the medical resident.