Careless Comments Can Cause Heartache for Patients, Caregivers
- Cancer & Caregiving
- Nov. 18, 2013
When my husband, Brian, was diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma, the news was incredibly hard to bear, and there were many days when I wondered how I would
For his sake, I strove to be strong — and managed to appear so on the outside. On the inside, however, I was incredibly fragile and was easily hurt
whenever someone said something to me that was inappropriate.
Though I understand how difficult it may have been for them to think of the right thing to say, it would have been
far better for me if they had not said anything at all.
I remember an occasion not long after Brian’s diagnosis when I told an acquaintance my sad news. Expecting some sympathy, I was shocked when she launched
into a tirade about a friend of hers who had died of mesothelioma.
“His pain was excruciating,” she said, “He used to writhe around in agony, and there was nothing that could be done about it.”
Her comments made me picture Brian in the same condition, and I became so upset that I could hardly speak. Later, I wondered why this woman had chosen to
relate such a horror story to me. Though it may have been true, it was the last thing that I had wanted or needed to hear.
What I really needed at the time was for her to acknowledge my suffering. I would have been so relieved if she had said something like, “Oh, that is such
sad news,” or “I am so sorry.”
I would also have welcomed a warm hug, which I always found to be especially comforting.
Pretense of Normality
Despite Brian’s terminal diagnosis, we attempted to carry on with our lives as we had always done. I understood how important this was for Brian, but it
all became a bit surreal for me. I found it increasingly hard to act as if everything was normal. This created such turmoil within me, and I desperately
needed to express how I was feeling.
The opportunity to do this, however, was extremely rare. When friends and acquaintances came to visit, they always asked how Brian was — and this was only
natural. There were many times, however, when I asked myself, Why doesn’t anyone ask me how I am or how I am feeling?
There were days when I could not keep up the pretense of normality any longer, and I would tell a complete stranger that my husband was dying. The look of
shock and sympathy on their faces justified the way I was feeling, and I was able to find a measure of relief in this.
Doctors’ Comments Can Be Heartless, Too
During the course of Brian’s illness, we visited a number of doctors, and I was amazed at how differently each of them treated him. Some showed no
compassion for his situation, and I came away from their office wondering how they could be so heartless.
By far, the worst of these was the young doctor who had delivered Brian’s diagnosis. “Mesothelioma, three to nine months I reckon.” was the way he chose to
tell Brian that he was dying.
Whatever possessed this man to deliver this tragic news in such a way? Though it could never be easy to tell someone that they are going to die, there is
no excuse for this doctor’s unfeeling manner.
I can only hope that time and his own inevitable experiences of loss teach this man how to treat fellow human beings in the future.
Second on the list was a much older doctor who did not offer us the slightest bit of courtesy when we entered his office. Already uncomfortable, I sat
quietly while Brian told him about his legs being swollen and bruised. I could not believe my ears when the doctor replied. “You are dying; what do you
Hearing this, I ached for Brian. He was dealing so bravely with the horror of his situation, and it was unacceptable to me that he was being treated in
such a way. I felt like saying to the doctor, “Would you be so brave if the situation was reversed? Why can’t you give Brian the respect he so deserves?”
It was quite obvious to me that this doctor felt that once you are terminally ill, you are of no significance. How little he knew of the strength of the human spirit.
Other Doctors Offer Respect, Compassion
On the other hand, there were two doctors who saw Brian not only as a terminally ill cancer patient, but also as the vital human being that he still was.
Upon each visit, they never failed to welcome him with a smile. And knowing how much he loved to go fishing, they would always ask him how many he had
caught lately. Only then did they move on to the medical side of things. In this, they were always considerate of both Brian’s and my feelings, and this
meant the world to the both of us.
We were always uplifted when we visited these two doctors who had the wisdom to understand that despite his terminal diagnosis, Brian was a fellow human being in need and that he deserved to be treated with
the upmost compassion and respect.
Thankfully, they also had the wisdom to know that their actions and their words could have a huge impact on those who were less fortunate than they were.
I believe that there is a lesson in this for all of us.
Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net.