Two Assumptions I Wish Doctors Didn’t Make About Cancer

Cancer can turn you into a stress-ball on its own, thankyouverymuch, but there are things that healthcare workers do that may worsen matters.

While there is always room for improvement in the many subtleties of physician-patient interactions (with subtleties being the operative term here, as anxious patients may be zeroing in on the “feel” of interactions and not just the spoken words), there are two big assumptions that I wish doctors would realize that they’re making:

Eat your vegetables and you won’t get cancer? I wish it were that simple.

The first assumption I’ve experienced has been made by non-oncologist physicians. They seem to be just as likely as the rest of the population to confuse correlations with causations. One doctors had been surprised that I had gotten cancer (hey, join the club) because my lifestyle “should” have been protective. Another told me to get a handle on my anxiety because that could make my cancer worse.

Both physicians, you could argue, were justified in saying what they did, as the messages we are bombarded with suggest that we have some control over our risk for cancer. However, read the fine print and you’ll see that in a great number of cases the risk factors that a cancer patient has don’t differ from those of someone who doesn’t develop cancer. But even doctors miss the fine print…

I brought this up to my oncology team which was quick to point out that as long as we don’t definitively know what causes cancer, we can’t make assumptions about whether or not someone will get the disease. So, yeah.

The other major assumption is one that I’ve gotten from the oncological community, and that is that on some level, most patients with a given cancer have the same health profile. Ironically, this concept is often mixed in with the conflicting assertion that everyone’s cancer experience is different. Granted, when you’ve seen a gazillion cancer patients, similarities emerge, and consciously or not there’s probably a tendency to pigeonhole people. Still it’s frustrating to be treated like I fit into a slot when I really don’t.

Effective communication is a critical part of quality physician-patient interactions.

My own oncologist has realized that, thankfully, but he has done a good job of listening and I do a (*cough cough*) good job of talking. Perhaps a bit too good, since he’s mentioned that it would be best if I scheduled my appointment to be his last of the day, so that we don’t face as many time restrictions. But therein lies my point: oncologists need to ask and patients need to share, otherwise, the patient remains a two-dimensional entity and it’s more likely that assumptions will be made about them.

So if there’s a take-home message from any of this, it’s that good communication is an essential part of effective treatment. This is not an easy feat, as physicians have a limited amount of time with each patient, and patients might not think that a given aspect of their experience is relevant. Believe me, it is, and the more that we talk about this and get into the nitty gritty of it, the easier it will be for everyone involved.

You know, I used to be funnier…

This is not the post I was originally going to write.

I was going to relate the feelings of loss that I’ve experienced. And if I feel them, cancer sufferers who are in worse situations are hit with a tenfold intensity.

However, I decided against that. As I noted earlier, attitude influences our perceptions of a situation. That’s certainly not earthshaking news, but the extent to which that happens constantly smacks me upside the head.

There are bright spots in cancer. My Nurse Navigator, herself a triple-negative breast cancer survivor, would say, “You’re gonna either laugh or cry,” and as patients we do find things to laugh about. It’s just that we want to be the ones to point those things out. Calling yourself Yoda because you have a few long hairs on your head can be done in a light-hearted way. Having your neighbor laugh at your bald pate after a strong gust of wind rips your head scarf off, not so cool.

Sitting down and plunking out a humorous piece used to be really easy. There were so many things in life to laugh about, and it was no sweat to find the funny in everything. But it’s a harder squeeze now with cancer in my rear view mirror.

Alright, who’s up for a Nerf gun battle?

Not that I want to hide behind doors in Groucho glasses ready to nail people with seltzer water. But being able to generate a little bit of lightness would be appreciated. And when you throw financial stressors, cancer, work pressures and gradually dissipating self-esteem into that environment, pulling out a sincerely funny post seems almost impossible.

This is not how I want to go out, as the grumpy old lady who sits by the window all day, watching the kids in the neighborhood and ratting them out for the smallest infraction. No, I’d rather be the fun old lady who brings out popsicles and water balloons and gets in trouble along with those kids.

Same old lady. Different attitude. Yeah, I can swing that.

Do Small Things with Great Love

Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.

Attributed to Mother Theresa

I have disappointed myself.

Thirty years ago, I would have assumed that by now I would be doing great things, making a big difference in the lives of many beings.

I would have been well advanced in my field and a person of consequence.

But life is full of twists and turns and things don’t always go according to plan.

There are obstacles along the way, and maneuvering around them can force you onto a side path. Sometimes that path strays too far from your original purpose and you end up so far away that you cannot make it back.

You may find yourself in a place that’s unfamiliar and unexpected. For me, it was a realization that I will not get to where I thought I was going.

So I cannot make grand decisions to benefit all. But perhaps I can do little things with a kind heart that will benefit someone. I may not change the world, but in a small way with great love I can do my part.

And perhaps that is enough.

Portals

The journey back to my hometown included a trip to my alma mater, less than an hour away from my parents’ house. Just like much of the Northeastern US, the school has a lot of history that is reflected in its architecture.

A rather majestic entrance to a library…

Doorways and passages hold a particular interest for me, not only because they can be works of art within themselves but also because they have a symbolism that resonates with me.

A close up of one of the library doors.

A door offers an opportunity to pass through and see what’s on the other side. It may improve our situation or worsen it, but even if it’s the latter, there’s always another door in the not-too-distant future that we can open.

What’s on the other side?

I don’t believe that we ever truly run out of portals to open and thresholds to cross.

Here’s an invitation to enter…
Doors can be deceiving. They may look foreboding, but lead to glorious things.
Some doors you want to stand and admire before opening.
And in lieu of a proper door, windows serve as adequate portals in a pinch.

Shinrin-Yoku – Forest Bathing in New England

I had the pleasure of returning to my hometown in the Northeast of the United States for a long-overdue visit. Flying into the airport, the difference between the landscape there and the sparser chaparral of my current home in Southern California was striking. The abundance of greenery in the form of old growth trees reminded me of what I missed so much about living in Connecticut – walking through forests, real forests, and reveling in being surrounded by the lushness of nature, awash with feelings of serenity and renewal.

Accept the invitation to slow down and appreciate the beauty around you.

Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term that means “forest bathing”, a form of nature therapy or ecotherapy, the benefits of which have been studied extensively beginning in Japan and South Korea, but now being practiced throughout the world. The concept is simple: slowly walk through a forest and experience it with all your senses.

Walking slowly, breathing deeply, there’s so much to experience..

While the practice is uncomplicated, in our busy world it is easy to forget the importance of spending time in nature and truly being present as we do so, connecting with an ancestral part of us that we usually ignore. There is much to be gained by doing so. Taken from the site Shinrin-Yoku.org,

The scientifically-proven benefits of Shinrin-yoku include:

Just as impressive are the results that we are experiencing as we make this part of our regular practice:

A perfect place to sit and enjoy simply being.

I can personally attest to this. Simply being in the presence of the trees, walking down a forest path under a majestic green canopy, listening to the wind in the leaves and songs of birds, it is unlike anything that I have experienced in the urban hustle-and-bustle of the Southern California lifestyle. Even in the higher elevations, I do not find what I found during my trip home.

While I cannot easily return to that experience several thousands of miles away, I can make an effort to find the “green” in my everyday life, to pause, reflect on and appreciate the nature around me. And taking a deep breath, I am calm.

The Impermanence of Green (and Yellow…and Orange…)

Most of the photos I’ve posted that I’ve taken myself were from my cancer treatment, so for this Mother’s Day I wanted to share something unrelated to the disease and filled with natural beauty.

There’s not much time left.

It has been an unusually rainy and cool spring in my corner of the world. Whereas in recent years, by now plants are drying up on the hillsides ready to provide kindling for late summer fires, in 2019, we are still getting rain showers. In fact, we had several today.

Orange nasturtiums light up the top of the hill, only to be overwhelmed by yellow wildflowers.

As a result, the hills and canyons are multiple shades of green. But it’s not simply the thickness of the green that makes me crane my neck as I drive down the road — wildflowers, encouraged by the rain, are spreading across the landscape. Masses of orange nasturtiums drip down hillsides as if they were poured out from above. They are stunning against the greenery.

These little yellow wildflowers, which I haven’t been able to ID properly yet (anyone?), are everywhere!

But I am most in love with the little yellow flowers that have transformed the canyons into an impressionist painting, where an artist practicing pointillism decided she had too much yellow on her palette and needed to get rid of it somewhere. The effect is breathtaking.

Mother Nature’s artistry is unrivaled.

Now, this may not seem like anything remarkable to you, but I am filled with joy to see so much color and beauty in the plantlife, untended by human hands and perhaps guided by something far more divine.

Islands of green in a sea of yellow.

Eventually, summer will take over, the rains will stop and the brown will return. These glorious colors may portend danger as the heat intensifies and the plants become fuel. So I will enjoy them now as a gift to the senses — it is not that these flowers are beautiful to me in spite of blooming only for a short time. They are beautiful because they bloom only for a short time. Happy Mother’s Day!