The Roller Coaster Chronicles: An open letter to cancer doctors everywhere
Readers: Just joining and want to catch up? These chronicles start here.
Here we are, you and me, our lives connected by cancer. My cancer. Under the circumstances, I’m really glad to have you in my life, and I want our relationship to be very, very long and very, very good, but since I can’t find a manual on how to build our relationship, I’m guessing that, like any good one, it has to start with trust.Â
But trust takes time, which we don’t have, so I have some things to ask and say.
First, just what am I trusting in you? That you’re brilliant, cool under pressure, experienced, knowledgable and up-to-date on the latest miracles of modern science for my type of cancer? That you won’t be too proud to call in colleagues or send me to them if you get stumped or run out of ideas? That you’ll always be honest with me no matter how hard it is for you or me? That you’ll help me set realistic expectations without ever stealing my hope? That you’ll be my strength if I’m too weak to be strong? That you won’t give up on me if the going gets rough and it looks like I won’t be one of your success stories?
Do you understand that it’s hard enough to put my trust in you, but even harder to put blind faith in the people I can’t see but on whom you rely? Like the pathologists who look at tiny pieces of me or the radiologists who interpret pictures of my innards. You may know their credentials, but I don't.
I get that you went to medical school to learn how to identify and treat disease, not to listen to me blather on about how cancer is more than a physical problem. That it’s really personal. That it sweeps us patients and our families into a tempest of confusion, fear, frustration, vulnerability and isolation from the healthy world.Â I’ll try very hard to check those emotions at the door when you and I visit, but if they creep into the examining room, is it too much to ask you to recognize that I’m not just a collection of cells that needs to be fixed while you work to fix my wayward cells?
And Doc, surely you know that your sophisticated equipment can’t see the parts of me that make me who I am. And I am not my cancer. No machine can identify the parts that make me love and laugh. And none can calculate how very afraid I am. Of what lies ahead. Of dying. Of pain. Of medical procedures. And of becoming a number in a bureaucracy where no one will care whether I end up running a marathon or being turned over in a bed like a piece of meat on a rotisserie. Could you occasionally share my fear and shore up my hope?
Doc, I’ve tried to put myself in your shoes, but I can’t imagine how, day in and day out, you see humanity at its weakest and still find the strength to help us. I’m just glad that you can. And I know I need much more from you than you need from me, but I’ll do anything to help you help me, if only you can squeeze out a little time to teach me how to be a good cancer patient in addition to everything else that I ask of you.
Neither you nor I can predict the future, Doc, and I don’t expect you to do more than is humanly possible. But may I trust you to treat my future as if it were your very own?