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Oncology Times:
doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000391440.80992.79
Opinion

VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STETHOSCOPE: Thanksgiving 2010

Harpham, Wendy S. MD

Free Access

It's that time again. Across America, families are gathering together for their annual feasts.

Twenty Thanksgivings ago, I didn't offer thanks. Who can blame me? I was in shock. I was in too much pain to recognize any of the gifts I'd received since my cancer diagnosis the week before, one of the first being my oncologist's answer when I asked, “Is my lymphoma curable?”

He could have said, “No.” Instead, he reassured me.

“Wendy, your lymphoma is very treatable. We have reason to hope the aggressive chemo does the trick.” He concluded with a prophetic postscript: “New treatments are coming down the pike that we'll use, if needed.”

WENDY S. HARPHAM, MD...
WENDY S. HARPHAM, MD...
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So began an endless cornucopia of gifts I've received from the members of my health care team.

Early on I couldn't appreciate all these gifts—clinicians' words and actions that clearly benefited me. And that bothers me, compelling me to spell out just a few of the things for which I will be eternally grateful.

Why share this with you? Because I'm willing to bet you offer similarly compassionate words and actions that comfort patients who don't have the wherewithal right now to thank you themselves.

You might be thinking “Patients don't have to thank me. It's my job.” When I was in practice, I'd have said the same thing. But life on the other side of the stethoscope has given me new appreciation for gratitude—both expressing mine and receiving others'.

So, thank you in advance for listening as I offer thanks to the physicians and nurses in my life.

* Thank you for supporting my desire for a second opinion at the end of my initial chemo. As an internist, I'd always welcomed outside opinions for my patients who wanted or needed one. Yet when I stood at the receptionist's desk waiting to pick up copies of my records, my cheeks flushed, as if I'd just asked for a copy of Penthouse. It helped when you reassured me: “Wendy, don't worry. Dr. S. is glad when patients get specialists' opinions.”

* Thank you for encouraging my one-on-one counseling with the oncology social worker and my participation in the hospital support group. You kept me from feeling weak.

* Thanks for giving me a way to save face and move on after I messed up. Despite my efforts to be an effective patient and to make it easy for you to take good care of me, I did a few stupid things that still make me cringe.

* Thank you for appreciating my grief after closing my medical practice. We all knew it was the right thing to do and that I needed to focus on getting well and raising my children. But leaving clinical medicine was a loss unlike any other, and you respected that.

* Thank you, thank you, thank you for asking about Rebecca, Jessica, and William at my follow-ups. Each “How are the kids?” told me you saw me not only as a cancer patient, but also as a mother with my most important job yet to do.

* How can I properly thank you for your calm demeanor each time my cancer recurred? The sadness on the faces and pity in the voices of friends and family scared me to death in the beginning, and tired me after I got used to being a cancer patient. Your unwavering focus on what we could do was just what I needed to muster the confidence needed to face more treatment.

* And thanks for realizing that when I was crying in your office I was not a blithering idiot. I was just...crying. I could still listen effectively to what you had to say.

* Thank you for guiding me to the best decision for me: enrolling in three clinical trials. I know it was a lot of extra paperwork and phone calls for everyone.

* Now I'm standing and clapping, appreciating how visit after visit, year after year, you have tended to each of my problems, no matter how minor or frustratingly persistent.

* When I first described my post-cancer fatigue in 1993, you validated it as real and different than the fatigue that healthy people feel at the end of a busy day. Given that post-treatment survivorship was not on most clinicians' radar yet, it was incredibly healing to be heard.

* As for my chronic leg pain, I don't know which describes you better: Energizer Bunnies or Pit Bulls. Either way, you never let up in your efforts to bring me relief. When I told you I'd accepted my chronic leg pain as part of my “new normal,” you said, “Fine, but I still want you to work with me, as we have other things to try.”

* Which reminds me of another gift that has helped me: the excellent communication among all of you—oncologist, internist, specialists, surgeons, radiologists, researchers, nurses, assistants, and even schedulers. When my long-term prognosis was terrible, I found peace, explaining to others, “If I don't get well, it won't be because my health care team and I are not doing enough, but because I have a lousy disease.

* How to express my gratitude for your hopefulness? Every patient should be fortunate enough to have a physician say, “I'm always looking for something for you.”

* Most memories of the early years of my survivorship have faded to a blur. One remains clear: The day my scans showed my first recurrence, I cried to one of you, “Don't give up on me!” You never did.

Looking back over the last 20 years, it's been quite a ride, hasn't it?

If we had time, I could go on and on, listing your gifts for which I am grateful. But I'll stop here. As the poet Frost said, “I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”

© 2010 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.

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