Treating the Whole Person

A person with cancer is not just a patient whose disease needs to be treated. We are not our cancer. Don’t treat us as if we were.


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Even now, 25 years later, although he is no longer my oncologist, we talk twice a year to wish each other a happy birthday, and I cherish those calls.
— Shirley Grandahl

Twenty-five years ago, I was a physically fit woman of 45 in training to run a marathon, which had been a lifelong goal. I was feeling fine and had no hint of the illness that would nearly take my life and has forever changed it. While ramping up to go the 26.2-mile distance, I decided to have a physical to make sure I was really as physically fit as I felt and was shocked to learn that I had stage M1 acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Even with aggressive treatment, I was told, my chance of surviving 5 years was just 10%, but with a husband and 4 adult children I loved and a 1-year-old granddaughter I adored, I wanted to do whatever it took to live as well as I could for as long as I could. I went for a run to get distance between cancer and me, but within days, I was in the hospital for what would be months of grueling treatment with cytarabine and daunorubicin.

I was so sick and remember staring out the window of my room, which overlooked the hospital parking lot; I saw a homeless woman pushing her shopping cart and thought how lucky she was to be free of overheated hospital rooms and illness.

Living a Full Life

By the time I completed my therapy, I was in remission but knew my chances of living longer than 5 years were slim, so my husband and I decided to jump-start our plans for retirement and pack in as much living as we could in whatever time I had left. We sold our home to help pay for my immense medical bills and moved into a smaller house, which I furnished with personal touches so there would be reminders of me after I was gone. I was planning for my death while still trying to have a full life.

Lingering Effects of Cancer

Although I’ve surprised myself, my family, and my medical team with living more than 2 decades after my AML diagnosis, the cancer treatment has weakened my heart, and I’ve experienced three transient ischemic attacks and a series of brain aneurysms. Still, I’m grateful to be alive and able to maintain a fairly active life. Most important, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to see my 1-year-old granddaughter grow into a beautiful 26-year-old woman and welcome the arrivals of 12 more grandchildren. We are a close family, and I think I’ve made an important difference in my grandchildren’s lives. I know they’ve made a big difference in mine.

Seeing Patients as Whole Human Beings

Another important relationship in my life is the one I’ve had with my oncologist, although initially we got off to a rocky start. I understand that it’s difficult for oncologists to get too close to patients, especially ones they don’t expect to live, but his standoffish demeanor was so off-putting and unsettling I finally had to confront him about his behavior. Each day when he came to visit me in the hospital while I was getting my chemotherapy treatment, he would stand at the foot of my bed, reading from my chart. He was never within touching distance and would leave the minute he completed updating me on my progress.

One day I had had enough and said: “I feel like I’m a mannequin and not a real person to you. I need you to stand next to me when you are delivering the news about my blood counts and once in a while to tap me on my hand to remind me that you know I’m a real-life person.” He looked very shaken and left my room. I immediately regretted saying anything, worried that he would be angry with me when I very much needed him to be my ally. But when he came in the next day to give me my latest test results, he held my hand, and our relationship changed overnight. Even now, 25 years later, although he is no longer my oncologist, we talk twice a year to wish each other a happy birthday, and I cherish those calls.

It’s important to remind people in our lives—our loved ones, friends, and members of our medical team—that a person with cancer is not just a patient whose disease needs to be treated but a whole human being with the same feelings, complexities, and needs as every other living creature. We are not our cancer. Don’t treat us as if we were. ■

Ms. Grandahl lives in Suffield, Connecticut. She is a patient advocate for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the coauthor of the book Cancer S.O.S.: Strategies of Survival (Alba Publishing, 1998).



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