The Grief Oncologists Bear

When I had questions, he patiently answered each one to my satisfaction and never made me feel stupid for asking. He never made me feel rushed. Instead, I felt respected and supported.

When I felt beat down from chemo and speculated that maybe I would just stop getting infusions, he showed me a chart of how much better my chances of survival would be if I followed the protocol to completion. That convinced me to stay.

During and after treatment, he made me feel heard. When my general practitioner was baffled as to why the arm that had had the port for chemo would swell painfully every time I got an injection, my oncologist figured out the cause. He even read my cancer blog.

I felt like this person was not just an excellent doctor, but an amazing human as well.

I had no idea that his job took a heavy emotional toll on him until I read Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. This wonderful book contains a collection of Dr. Remen’s experiences as a pediatrician and as a counselor for people who work with patients who have life threatening illnesses, and her experiences are told as concise, self-contained stories recounting people’s situations, lessons learned and healing insights. The stories are in turns sad, uplifting and thought provoking.

Kitchen Table Wisdom made me aware of two things I had never considered during treatment.

Thing one: Medical school does not teach future doctors how to handle losing patients.

Thing two: Americans as a people do not know how to support one another’s grief in a helpful manner. Culturally, we get it wrong.

I remember how people tried to cheer me up during the dark days of treatment. I knew they meant well, but typically the words they intended as comfort ended up sounding like empty platitudes. I often found it less stressful to be alone than to be around people who found my distress so painful that they would say anything to try to relieve it. Perhaps those experiences contributed to cancer making me feel so isolated while I was in treatment.

What they could have done better would have been to just acknowledge that the situation was awful and leave it at that. Truly. One of the most helpful extensions of support for a grieving person is to acknowledge their pain without trying to fix it; yet that is surprisingly difficult to do.

Dr. Remen wrote about how hard it was to watch families experience crushing grief when she had just delivered the news that their child was going to die and how it tore at her when she couldn’t save a patient. She also pointed out that to deny one’s grieving is to deny the path to healing. I imagine that is why it is so damaging to suppress one’s feelings.

I talked to my oncologist about it during a checkup. I said it must be hard to see patients die.

This was years ago, but I vividly recall how he agreed that yes, he would very much like to find himself out of a job because cancer had been cured. He also confirmed that yes, it takes an emotional toll to see patients suffer and die. It was my moment to see him the way he made me feel heard and I thanked him for hanging in there despite the challenges.

I don’t agree when someone rants about how Western medicine is a racket with regards to cancer care and “they” only want to keep you coming back rather than cure you so they can get rich off your illness. If that applies to anyone, it must be a small minority. Most healthcare professionals truly want a cure.

My original oncologist retired years after I moved. I still think he’s an amazing human.

I’m also deeply grateful that he made those emotional sacrifices as a person exposed regularly to suffering and tragedy. He helped a lot of people in his work as an oncologist. Cancer diagnosis and treatment was slightly less awful for me because he was there, being kind as much as he was professional.

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