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View from the Other Side of the Stethoscope: Why Patients Keep Walking

Harpham, Wendy S. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000466860.88155.d8
Opinion

Your next patient arrives wearing a cancer-walk T-shirt. That poly/cotton blend can help you in your care. Let's talk about those fundraising events to see why.

At cancer walks, the spotlight shines on survivors. Yet many patients attend primarily for the benefit of somebody else. In my case, I had my kids in mind when I registered for my first walk in 2004. By then I'd already been showered with enough emotional support and inspiration for 20 lifetimes. The walk represented another Mom-opportunity to expose my teenagers to the world of cancer beyond our family's experience. It was a place to reinforce a few lessons about survivorship—and about life—while enjoying family fun.

Indeed, the walk's entrance felt like a carnival, with colorful balloons and pulsating music. My kids grazed the food tables and chatted with their friends, all clad in teal Wendy's Eagles t-shirts that featured a soaring bird. The first time a screen-printed face grinned at my 15-year-old from the back of another team's t-shirt, his curious eyes found a harsh reality: a name above two dates separated by a dash. He broke from his herd to come over and whisper in my ear, “Did you see?”

Each of my children, somewhere along their inaugural 5K walk, began to know things in new ways, such as the fact that they weren't the only ones dealing with cancer. That even though cancer is always sad, they can find and create times of joy. And that in the face of an impossibly big and complex problem, they can work with others toward solutions. They can make a difference.

Making a difference takes hope. This spring, our 2015 speaker, Dexter, shared his struggle with hope. “After my diagnosis two years ago, I felt totally optimistic. With our infant daughter in my arms, I felt confident I'd be fine. But my wife didn't feel hopeful, and...(pause)...and I couldn't help her.”

Empathizing with Dexter's distress, I followed his line of gaze to a woman under a tree in front of the crowd. She was swaying side-to-side with a toddler perched on her hip. Only a sliver of her profile was visible while I listened to Dexter go on.

“At the walk, my wife found the camaraderie of people in her position. While watching the Survivors Lap, she felt the first stirrings of a hope that had been stubbornly absent while watching me and other patients at the cancer clinic.”

As expected, Dexter inspired everyone with his story of remission and recovery. When, in closing, he shared that his cancer had recently recurred, nobody gasped or cried. Shock and sadness—rest assured, both skittered through the crowd—were instantly subdued by the collective spirit of the walkers, many thriving after recurrence. His wife, still rocking their little one, appeared to be bathing the two of them in the walk's miasma of hope.

As my own kids began leaving the nest, I began enlisting premed students from the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) to walk as Wendy's Eagles. After last month's walk, a freshman emailed, “Dr. Harpham, I saw this comment on a walker's name tag: ‘So I don't have to fight it a third time.’ At first, I found it humorous. Then it was sobering... made this very real.” And a senior wrote, “The word ‘patient’ usually elicits images of people in hospital beds and doctors' clinics. Seeing people who are currently undergoing various therapies—but who look normal on the outside—was a humbling reminder of the challenges of life.”

Thanks to the walk, those aspiring physicians will study, train, and ultimately practice medicine with an appreciation of the fact that patients do most of their survivorship between office visits. Reason enough for me to keep walking.

In truth, I keep walking for me, too. The event provides a stage to honor my extraordinary survival—and everyone who has played a role in it. The public display, like an annual booster shot, immunizes me from taking any of it for granted.

If I'm in treatment, walking is a way to defy physical weakness and thumb my nose at scary statistics. I imagine that if I expected an event to be my last, I'd walk to defiantly show the world “I can do this” and to reassure myself I'm still here.

It's hard to describe the feeling of still being here, relatively healthy, after losing so many co-survivors. The faces of my cherished friends who died may not be on t-shirts, but their voices still echo in my head. Walking relieves grief and survivors' guilt. Walking feels like I'm shouting to the heavens, “You are not forgotten. You are with me, walking to fund research.”

Of course, walking does not fund anything. Money does. And, ugh, asking for money still makes me squeamish. To calm my fund-xiety, I reread the inspiring comments accompanying donations. Yet even without words of encouragement I'd keep walking, for two main reasons.

First, decades ago strangers helped fund the clinical trials in which I was treated. Now it's my turn to be a stranger who helps patients in need of better treatments. Second, my health care team has taken superb care of me for 25 years. It's my turn to help them by raising money for patient services that make clinicians' jobs easier and for research that will put better therapies at their disposal.

Cancer walks open new opportunities for healing. The next time your patients wear a fundraiser t-shirt, consider asking, “What's the best part for you?” Or, offer one phrase to bolster their self-worth and strengthen your clinician-patient bond: “Thanks for walking.”

Patients who do walks and clinicians are on a shared mission of improving cancer care. UTD students got it right when they emailed me after this year's walk: “With enough people working together, anything is possible.”

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Award for This Column!

Congratulations to Wendy S. Harpham, MD, who has won a Silver Award from the American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors in the category of “Best Regular Department.” She has been writing “View from the Other Side of the Stethoscope” since 2005, and this is now the second time that ASHPE has recognized her writing—she also won in 2007 in the category of “Best Regular Column—Contributed.”

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This latest award recognizes the following three columns in 2014 in particular:

* “Healing Adjectives” 1/25/14 issue (http://bit.ly/1E7Ht51);

* “Mourning Report” 2/25/14 issue (http://bit.ly/1HjuIMd); and

* “Disclosure and Dementia” 9/25/14 issue (http://bit.ly/1L5cs93).

ASHPE awards honor “editorial excellence and achievement in the field of healthcare publishing.”

Copyright © 2015 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.
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