It's unsettling that a family felt compelled to add that disclaimer to an obituary. But then I've noticed that lung cancer, as well as several other common diseases, carries a certain stigma because of the popular association with a harmful habit or lifestyle choice. Of course, we know lung cancer has many possible causes, not just smoking. Not everyone stops to consider the bigger picture.
Just why would some members of our society be quick to assume the worst and blame the victim no matter what the circumstances? Perhaps their perceptions of personal vulnerability are eased if they can attribute a disease to “bad” choices that they haven't made. I suppose it's a way to put greater distance between a terrifying disease and those who truly fear it. The problem occurs when the individual with the disease experiences those judgmental attitudes.
At the end of the day, whether or not choices or actions can be pinned to a particular disease, someone is still suffering a devastating health crisis. “Guilt” or “innocence” shouldn't matter one way or another in our approach to these patients or their loved ones. Our humanity should kick into gear and cast judgmental attitudes into the winds, right?
Unfortunately, as nurses, we aren't immune to personal biases either. How many times have you heard something akin to, “He/she brought this on himself/herself”? An eye roll, a headshake, or a shoulder shrug might follow such a statement. The subsequent nurse-patient interaction is probably very different in quality than the one in which the nurse feels true empathy and compassion for an “innocent” victim.
I'd like to believe that as educated healthcare professionals, we can get to a place of compassion in how we think about any patient experiencing the devastation of disease or injury. It's important to remember that our words and actions always begin with our thoughts. Spending some time for self-reflection to examine our own feelings and responses to these situations is a good place to start.
Patients and their loved ones shouldn't have to expend precious personal energy asserting their innocence or their worth. They need to conserve that energy to deal with their crises.
Until next time,
Linda Laskowski-Jones, MS, RN, ACNS-BC, CEN, FAWM
Editor-in-Chief, Nursing2014 Vice President: Emergency & Trauma Services Christiana Care Health System, Wilmington, Del.