Empathetic Doctors are Crucial to the Cancer Experience

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • “Who’s your doctor?”

    This is one of the first questions you’ll hear when a group of breast cancer patients gets together. The answer will be greeted with responses ranging from, “Oh yeah, that’s who I have, he’s cool,” to a slight grimace and a tentative “So, how do you like her?” to full-blown sympathy: “Oh, too bad… I’ve heard he’s really hard to deal with.” Isn’t it interesting that our first response isn’t “Oh, she knows SO much, she went to Harvard Medical School!” Instead, we base our judgment on how we connect with the doctor personally, medical knowledge or surgical skills aside. 
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    Is this just a woman thing? To some degree, probably. My husband, on meeting a new doctor, will base his first impression on whether he got the medical help he expected: understanding of the problem, and a solution. A new prescription for heartburn. Exercises for a bum knee. Only afterwards, when I prod him, will he offer, “Yeah, he seemed like a nice guy”–with a quizzical look that says, “And what difference does THAT make?”

    It’s only natural that we, as women, lead with our emotions rather than our left-brain selves; it’s how we live our lives, making connections. With our parents and siblings, schoolmates and friends, with our children and work colleagues and the checkout woman at the supermarket: we’re all about relationships. Why should this critically important new person in our lives, our cancer doctor, be any different? First, make the connection. Then, once the relationship is established, get down to business. But, in the case of cancer treatment, how well are we serving ourselves when we put our hearts before our minds?

    Doctor X is a well-known breast cancer specialist. He’s up on all the cutting edge treatments, travels to San Antonio each December for America’s largest breast cancer symposium, and is an adjunct professor at a prestigious medical school. He’s also cold as a fish. You dread your appointments with him. He doesn’t seem to listen when you list symptoms or ask questions, and a smile never crosses his face. He treats you like a case number, a “cancer patient,” not a woman with feelings. You leave his office feeling disgruntled and unhappy.

    Dr. Y, on the other hand, is happy, enthusiastic, greets you at each appointment with a hug. She sits and looks into your eyes as you speak, nodding sympathetically. Her face mirrors your own emotions: pain, sadness, relief when a prescription actually works. You love coming to see her. You also know that she’s one year out of internship, and you’re one of her very first patients. Given the choice, which doctor would/should you choose?

    “Well, obviously the more experienced, higher-level doctor,” would be an obvious response. And yet… that’s not the choice I’d make. Luckily, my oncologist is that rare combination of intelligence, experience, and good bedside manner. But had I been given a choice of “nice” vs. “brilliant,” I know I would’ve picked the doctor I like over the one who might know a bit more.

  • Now, before you assume I have a death wish, here’s how I figure it: when you have breast cancer, you’re going to be seeing an awful lot of your oncologist for several months; and the relationship will probably last for at least five years, if not longer. How big is the down side to being in an unhappy relationship for that long? For me, huge. My mind and heart play a key role in healing my body; a “mean” doctor, despite his knowledge, may treat my cancer, but he won’t heal ME. I want and need someone to connect with all of me, not just my diseased body. And yes, I’m willing to trade that emotional connection for a fancy medical resumé.
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    How about you? Have you made this choice? How has it worked out? Let me know your feelings by commenting below.
Published On: April 03, 2007