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Relationships with your Doctors

Posted 10/2/2015

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  Obviously there are no absolutes, and everyone is different, but many cancer patients have long and close and sustaining relationships with their caregivers. I started to write "with their doctors", but it is broader than that. The connections are also with nurses, social workers, nursing assistants, the people at the front desk who are the first to greet you when you arrive for an appointment or a treatment. One of the reasons that many of us have loved working in oncology is the longevity of many relationships. There are many women whom I have literally known for decades.

  These relationships were a topic of several conversations at the retreat earlier this week. Many women expressed their gratitude for the closeness they feel with their caregivers, and we talked a bit about boundaries. There must always be some limits or boundaries; you don't want to have the same friendship with your oncologist that you do with your college roommate.But, as we know each other over time, the human connection becomes incredibly important.

  I remember being taught in social work school that, if a patient inquired where I was going on vacation, the approved answer was "Why is that important to you?" I am horrified all over again as I type that. Even way back then, I would never have responded that way. It is just plain rude and arrogant and completely builds solid walls. Now, if asked, I will surely answer and am happy to have a brief conversation about it--and then, later, to share a story or two after my return. 

  One of the women at the retreat talked about her husband's illness and subsequent death. He was a psychiatrist and, towards the end, he was wise and gracious and generous and invited (some) of his patients into his life. She said that a few of them became practically family, helping out in the kitchen, making tea, being present and bearing witness to a very important relationship and a very wonderful man. I hope that I would have the courage to do the same.

  This is a lovely essay by Susan Gubar from The New York Times about this:

Living With Cancer: My Doctor, My Friend
By Susan Gubar

When my oncologist told me about her various job offers, she laughed and reassured me that the only position that could lure her away would be a professorship named for Princess Diana. Of course I knew she was kidding.
Dr. Daniela Matei would not relocate to another institution unless doing so benefited her work as a research
physician. Throughout the months of her recent negotiations, an old country song kept running through my mind:
“I’ve Got Tears in My Ears (From Lyin’ on my Back in my Bed While I Cry Over You).”
For more than six years, Dr. Matei and I have been meeting regularly in a sterile cubicle equipped with two
plastic chairs, a stool, an ugly poster of the stages of ovarian cancer, a computer near a sink, an assortment of labeled trashcans, and one of those hideous gynecological contraptions. Even in such an inauspicious setting, oncologists can become more than doctors if — and it is a big “if” — circumstances and temperament allow them to derail the usual power dynamics that subordinate patients to a subservient role. In doing so, they become the crowning glory, the royalty, of oncology.
At the start of our conversations, Dr. Matei served as my wise counselor, advising me on the lay of cancer-land. She knew my prognosis, the nature and duration of the gold standard treatment, as well as the medications that would offset its side effects. Brandishing my list of questions, I flirted by dressing up in a newly pressed shirt and skinny pants with cute flats — well, as cute as they could be, given the neuropathies immediately triggered by treatment — because I knew she always looked at my ankles, sometimes tapping them, and because she wore beautiful shoes.



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