I was sitting at a lunch counter the other day chatting with one of my former small group advisees about his career interests. Gunan, who is now an intern, was rotating on the oncology service. During our conversation he told me about how much he was enjoying his experience.
“That's right in line with your chosen field of radiation oncology, right?”
“Good stuff,” I replied.
“I think I just … I don't know. I just like taking care of people with cancer.”
I wasn't sure what to say to that. I mean, can a person technically like cancer? Is it even okay to say that? I wasn't so sure.
Gunan saw my wheels turning and clarified, “I've figured out what it is about cancer that makes me like it.”
Like. Cancer. Uh, okay.
I raised my eyebrows. “Oh yeah? What's that?”
Gunan paused for a moment to find his words. I think he wanted to be sure that it didn't come out wrong. After a few seconds he finished chewing his bite of sandwich and spoke. “You know what it is? Peoplerespect the cancer diagnosis. No matter who they are, they do.”
I squinted my eyes at this concept which pushed him to go on. From there he fleshed out the idea pointing out that there aren't too many other things that every person old or young fully respects like a cancer diagnosis. He described how even the most difficult patients straighten up the moment it gets uttered. Family members step in to help, even estranged ones come from the woodworks, because it's cancer. Almost like having a U.S. president walk into a room. Essentially, it's kind of like the universal last word of diagnoses.
Now this? This was a pretty thought provoking idea. And especially so since I'd never thought of diagnoses as rungs on some sort of ladder of respect.
“That's deep, man.”
Lame reply, I know. But that's all I could say because this was such an interesting perspective, and one that I believe was extremely accurate.
Gunan gave me something to really chew on that day. This idea of diseases being hierarchal and having one that is the President Obama of them all, cancer.
Heart disease is exponentially more likely to take out any person than cancer. It also has a much, much greater chance of disabling or redefining a life than cancer. And, though a lot about cancer is terrifyingly mysterious, when it comes to heart disease? Meh. Not so much. High blood pressure, obesity, inactivity, elevated cholesterol, and family history are just a few things that greatly increase the chance of a person getting heart disease. And you know? Society has done a pretty darn good job of getting that memo out.
And sure, if someone doesn't seem so stressed about potentially getting something like heart disease, surely they'd feel the wake up call if they actually had it, right? In my experience, I'd say that answer isn't in the affirmative. While some folks definitely straighten up and fly right after a heart attack or some other cardiac event, many, many people don't. Nor do the people around them.
But cancer? That's a whole different story.
The other diagnosis that doesn't get it's full respect is HIV. All of the aforementioned things about heart disease ring true for HIV. This virus? We know about it. Like, all about it. There are ways to prevent and treat it, too. But perhaps even more than heart disease, it gets treated like an annoying tick on a dog's butt, something to ignore or not even look for until your forced.
I've told people that they were HIV positive. I've held their hand and walked them through the process of getting into care, too. But unlike cancer, it doesn't arrive with the same amount of boundless empathy. And worse, many times it prompts people to run in the other direction.
The patients are usually somewhere between really, really adherent to all that you suggest or totally in denial. And you know? That doesn't happen so much with cancer.
Compared to cancer, HIV, as the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield would say, gets ”no respect at all.”
It's true. AIDS and heart disease just don't get the respect that they absolutely deserve, man. And don't even get me started on mental illness which really gets disrespected.
But cancer? For some reason it's on a lonely list of diseases that somehow escapes all that. Even the most ill-equipped, contentious, poorly resourced and opinionated patients and families respond swiftly to that 6-letter word. They become more pleasant, cooperative and agreeable. They try what you suggest and listen when you speak. It's pretty damn remarkable.
Yeah. My former advisee was totally right. And it's a fascinatingobservation, isn't it?
So what is it about cancer? Is it the terminal nature of many of its forms? Is it the ruthlessness of it in how it strikes or the triumph of those who overcome its prickly grasp? Is it our universal fear of it that makes us all feel some need to show strong empathy lest we awaken the cancer-gods and find ourselves stricken out of some punitive wrath? Maybe it's all of this. Or none of it. Whatever it is, there's just something about malignancy that makes everybody listen just a little bit closer, follow up a little more carefully, and immediately get onto our best behavior.
And you know? It's not just the patients and their families, either. Doctors are also in this same camp. Our empathy heightens for patients carrying a cancer diagnosis. I know for sure that this is so because I've felt it inside of me and witnessed it time and time again at Grady Hospital.
Let me give you an example.
I took care of this super-cantankerous gent named Mr. Kelly with a longstanding stronghold of alcohol abuse on my service recently. He'd been admitted several times over the years for withdrawal and complications of his alcoholism. That man had a very sick liver and never once got hospitalized on a “soft call.”
But even though he didn't walk the line on illness severity, that didn't make him nicer or uniquely appreciative of his healthcare providers. He was difficult. Due to his illness and unstable housing, Mr. Kelly's hygiene was poor and frankly, that made it unpleasant to care for him. And, if I man be frank, downright noxious. He also argued with staff and, due to fear and frustration, wasn't so nice most days. The team and nursing staff lost empathy for him. People went in only when absolutely imperative. And even though people held their eye rolls, you could feel them whenever his name came up in a discussion.
But then he had that MRI that showed a mass on his liver. A mass with features pathognomonic for hepatocellular carcinoma, that is, liver cancer. A blood test and additional studies confirmed what we thought. Not only did Mr. Kelly have this bad diagnosis--he wasn't really a candidate for any interventions that could lead to a meaningful recovery.
And that moment? That second when we scrolled through the MRI images and hit that big oval mass on his liver? It was a turning point. Suddenly we all began rooting for him in a different way. And I'm embarrassed to admit it but something about knowing this about him made me want to see him more and spend time in his room. The heavy cloak of foul dank odor that hit you when walking through the threshold somehow seemed insignificant now. And his “difficulties” suddenly seemed like “quirks” instead.
But you know? Mr. Kelly changed, too. The minute we sat in that room at eye level and shared that information, a switch turned on in him. Or off. Or whatever it was, he changed. He asked questions and listened. His family members took his calls and he took theirs. There were cards on his window sill and balloons tied to his bed rail. And the nurses, like me, in unspoken solidarity rallied around him to make sure he was comfortable and that all was well.
One could argue that his advanced liver disease, cirrhosis and alcoholism were already equally as life threatening if not more than this new diagnosis. His life expectancy, chance for recovery from his liver damage, all of it already portended a very poor prognosis. And we, the physicians and nurse, knew that. Yet somehow when someone threw hepacellular carcinoma into the mix, we lined our ducks up and offered this man a new dignity. It's true.
And you know? I'm not sure how I feel about that. I'm not.
I talked to my friend Wendy A. about this whole concept. This idea of disease hierarchy and how some illnesses we throw our shoulders back to salute and how others get a head nod and that's it. I asked her thoughts on how cancer especially wins when it comes to that and why that was. And her take on it is that no person is exempt from the potential cancer diagnosis. She said, for this reason, perhaps, we all revere it.
And I still don't know how even the ones that some cancer patientsseduced into their lives through tobacco use or other finger-wag worthy habits garners the same empathy. But they do. Like, not these attitudes that the man who has sex with men got what what he had coming to him when he found out he had AIDS or how the lady who had a stroke after using crack cocaine got what she deserved. Again, regardless of the etiology, cancer escapes all that. Somehow it justdoes.
So the Pollyanna positive girl in me has decided that this speaks to some innate thread of good in all of human kind. And how, as awful as cancer can be, it's amazing that there exists something that stands out as a pied piper for humanism and care for human suffering made palpable.
You know? I don't even know why I wrote about all of this. But I do know this: The complexity of what we do is mind-blowing, man.
Kimberly Manning, MD, FACP, FAAP is an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia where she teaches medical students and residents at Grady Hospital. This post is adapted from Reflections of a Grady Doctor, Dr. Manning’s blog about teaching, learning, caring and growing in medicine and life. It has been adapted and reprinted with permission. Identifying information has been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.