Doctors get cancer too
Posted on 13 November 2012 by Carol H Kehoe
Cancer is always something that happens to other people.
Any kind of doctor, from foundation year 1s in general surgery to consultant oncologists, will end up dealing with cancer patients.
You always feel sorry for these patients and wonder what it must be like. You try to show empathy and understanding, but you worry that you may sound patronising.
The more morbid among us try to imagine how we would react if we were diagnosed with cancer. Would we soldier on bravely? Would we cower in a corner crying and feeling sorry for ourselves? Would we lie morosely on the settee, watching daytime television?
Initially, I was convinced that I had got costochondritis. My GP also thought that the tender lump I had suddenly developed was musculoskeletal or a cyst. However, she had probably put me on a two-week pathway because she did not know what else to do with me. A chest X-ray had proved negative.
Alarm bells started to ring during an ultrasound scan when the radiologist said my lump was solid, not fluid. When the surgeon broke the news to me that he thought it was likely to be suspicious, I had a double reaction.
On the one hand, I thought: well, we all get something in life. On the other, I thought: surely this was inflammation and I had not anticipated it actually to be malignant. I felt strangely detached from the whole experience. The person who accompanied me into the consultation appeared more shocked and upset than I was.
Suddenly, I was no longer on the outside, trying to be sympathetic towards a cancer patient. I was that person everyone pitied, glad that they were not in my shoes.
When I told people the news and they said ‘I’m sorry’ I felt like replying sarcastically that I was too. Having said that, I am not sure how I wanted people to react. In a strange kind of way, it was easier if they were matter of fact about it.
Most of the time initially, I was able to carry on as normal, as if nothing was wrong. Occasionally, it would hit me, sometimes at unexpected times. For instance, during one work meeting, MDTs (multidisciplinary teams) were mentioned. That gave me a bit of a turn, knowing that I was due to be discussed at a cancer MDT the next day.
I would say that, if you know that a colleague has just been diagnosed as having cancer, express sympathy, but do not smother them or get too sentimental. Talk to them about what is going on, ask questions, and allow them to express themselves.
People tread on eggshells, but, apart from some slightly misguided advice, no one has said ‘the wrong thing’ to me. By all means, ask how they are feeling, but they might have such mixed emotions and physical symptoms that it can be difficult to say.
Carol H Kehoe is a doctor in the Midlands
Work and life