The other morning, I spent some time talking with four young women in the physician assistant program at Seton Hall University. I was there to give them the truth (mine) about what it is like to be a cancer patient.
As a patient educator with the Pathways Women’s Cancer Teaching Project, I’ve met with hundreds of young residents, and medical, nursing and chaplain students. During our sessions, we are interviewed and participants are encouraged to ask us anything and everything about our experience. In this way, we expose them to the patient as a whole person with a family, job, fears and emotions. We’ve been told by many participants that meeting with us has entirely changed their practice for the better.
Three of the women I spoke with were engaged and asked numerous questions. The fourth was extremely quiet and sat twirling her hair. She appeared to be listening, but wouldn’t participate, even when I asked her directly if she had any questions.
After our session with the PA students, the patient educators got together. When it was my turn to talk about my session, I mentioned the young woman twirling her hair. I said I initially thought she wasn’t engaged, but a moment of eye contact led me to believe she might have been dealing with a cancer story of her own.
We looked at her feedback form and, sure enough, she had written that a member of her family had breast cancer and she just couldn’t talk about it in the group.
How did I know? Something in her eyes sparked a split second of recognition. How many times had I gone out into the world, trying to function normally, when deep down inside I was carrying the red hot ember of cancer worry? What about that time I struggled to hold it together as the tech said amazingly ignorant things to me during my first mammogram after my mastectomy?
And it’s not just cancer pain we push down where we think no one can see. One of the most painful experiences of my life happened over 20 years ago when I was a practicing attorney. I was in another attorney’s office for a scheduled deposition of his client, a child. My job was to ask questions about the child’s accident, but the attorney came out and told me his client wanted to leave early. When I said I would try to be quick, but I had a job to do, he asked me if I had children. When I answered that I didn’t he dismissed me with, “Oh, that’s why you don’t understand.”
What he didn’t understand was that I am the oldest of nine children, so I certainly get kids. He also didn’t understand that I had lost two pregnancies and was battling infertility. As much as his carelessly cruel comment hurt me, I held in my pain and trudged through the deposition.
None of us has to come clean and share anything we don’t want to share. We have a right to our privacy and our dignity (there’s nothing worse than losing it with people you don’t trust to handle it.)
Sometimes it’s easy to know when a person needs your kindness. And sometimes it isn’t.
But it shouldn’t matter.
Part of being human is to experience sorrow, fear, grief and pain.
To be an evolved human is to know it’s not just you and to act accordingly, with kindness.
Because you never know.
Survival > Existence,