Some who read this blog do so because they’ve been diagnosed with colorectal cancer. In fact, at least some health care providers in the Waterloo Region habitually encourage newly diagnosed patients to read this blog. They do so both for its sometimes brutal realism, as well as for its optimism and useful references.
I’d love sometime to get together with other patients to talk about an experience that some of us might share. That experience relates to people commenting on how well you look.
“Gee, you look really good, Don. If you hadn’t told me that you have terminal cancer, I wouldn’t know that there was anything wrong with you at all…OK, maybe that cane that you carry with you might be a clue. And you’ve lost weight. Come to think of it, you’re also looking pretty pale these days. And there are those grimaces that momentarily capture your face, and moans we occasionally hear from the main floor bathroom.”
My wife will then offer up her perspective.
“You know, as soon as you leave today, Don will probably have an extended nap to recoup energy. And if you were here in the evenings and night, you would see those times when the pain level is far higher than it is at this moment. You’d also see how difficult it’s been for Don and his medical team to balance the pain medications to make his life bearable and to avoid delusions. In fact, almost nobody thought Don would make it beyond Christmas last year. From my perspective, it’s almost miraculous that he’s still here entertaining visitors.”
The common wisdom is sometimes stated as follows:
“If you feel good, then you are good.”
“If you look good, then you are good.”
My response tends to vacillate between some variant of common wisdom and a more scientific perspective. Science, for instance, offers us ways to extend our senses, to take measurements and devise statistics that are more finely tuned than the rather crude “feeling good” and “looking good”.
Common wisdom is where I go when I’m overwhelmed with all the statistics. When I can understand the measurements and statistics, then I put common wisdom back in the tool bag for another time.
What does it matter?
With most people, it really doesn’t matter how well you feel or how good you look. But with people who really care for you or whose care giving requires specialized knowledge and measurements, then it can be frustrating communicating with them when you sense that they don’t have the complete picture.
On an emotional level, if a family member tends to discount your concerns because you simply look good at the time they are with you, then you have to deal with the frustration and determine whether or not to risk telling them that they just don’t get it. With concerns you might have with health care providers, it’s much easier; you simply insist that they get the big picture one way or the other before they start a procedure or ask you to follow a new routine.
What to do?
I’d like to hear from some of you about how you’ve resolved the emotional frustration of dealing with people who you sense don’t understand the seriousness of your medical condition. Sometimes, perhaps, it’s the other direction. You mention cancer and they have you already in the grave. But most of the time, the frustration is in sensing that the other person doesn’t get how sick you really are.
Having said all that about emotional frustrations and difficulties in communicating, I have to admit that my overall journey has been remarkably positive. I’ve seen people open up and share difficult topics with me – difficult for both of us. I’ve seen people struggle with how much or how little to say, with the overall result being an extension of healing in both directions. I’ve sometimes had to switch roles from patient to psychological counsellor, again with generally very positive consequences. Like so many other important relationships, my unwanted journey has revealed opportunities for growth and enrichment.