Even before my cancer diagnosis three years ago I understood that trust is one of the central features of the patient-physician relationship. Ideally when I come under a physician’s care I should trust in my doctor’s competency and in their commitment to me as a patient. When I undergo medical treatment I must also trust my physician or surgeon to put my welfare above his or her own self-interest. Ethically my physician should always place my needs above obligations to other groups and advocate for my welfare.
This bond of trust has played a dominant role throughout my cancer journey, especially when I’ve undergone major surgery or consented to treatments such as chemotherapy. I met my oncologist in November 2011 and I continue to trust in his medical expertise and sound judgment when it comes to treating my disease. I know he and other members of the team at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre have placed my best interests before anything else. Still I regret to say that there was a critical point during my cancer treatment when I began to have irrational doubts about my surgeon and his medical colleagues.
Looking back, several factors were instrumental in causing me to temporality lose confidence in my surgeon. In the spring of 2012 complications arose due to my cancer treatments. Two previous surgeries had resulted in scarring and adhesion of my bowel and at the time the blockage was probably being exacerbated by the chemotherapy I was undergoing. I was terrified of what might happen and despondent about my situation when I ended up a patient on the genealogic oncology unit for the third time. I was admitted through the emergency department and I could sense that my situation was extremely serious or potentially life-threatening. Worst of all I was in a tremendously weakened physical condition and my psychological state could best be described as anxious and confused.
My trust in my surgeon began to deteriorate due to communication issues. While he is a highly skilled oncological surgeon, like many doctors he is not always strong when it comes to exercising interpersonal communication skills. He rarely spoke to me or came by my room—we never really had a conversation to reassure me or to discuss my condition in detail. Instead it was typically surgical residents completing their 7 a.m. rounds that I saw for a few minutes each morning. In about the second or third week of being confined to a hospital bed with orders not to consume food my fear and imagination began to run out of control. Was my surgeon really qualified and capable? Had he played any role in creating the serious complications I was now facing?
Meanwhile, some family members and other non-medically trained individuals only increased these suspicions and fears. They suggested that perhaps I should not trust my surgeon and that I should try to get another specialist to operate on my bowel blockage. As the scheduled date for my surgery approached I became virtually obsessed with how vulnerable I was and how I would be literally placing my life in my surgeon’s hands.
I had previously trusted my surgeon and thought of him as a conscientious and vigilant medical practitioner, now I had almost convinced myself that he might be the opposite. Was he a cowboy? As explained in Dr. Brian Goldman’s book The Secret Language of Doctors cowboy is a slang term to describe a surgeon who is excessively reckless or careless with patients. In the bestseller a cowboy is described as someone who rides by the seat of his pants. It’s someone who kind of does things quickly. They’re trying hurriedly to do everything in a somewhat haphazard fashion, hoping like hell it all comes together at the end. Cowboy is also used to refer to a surgeon who perhaps doesn’t have the best judgment—someone who operates first and asks questions later.
Of course there were moments when I had nagging doubts that I could endure another surgery, I had just been through two major operations. This had made me all too familiar with the overwhelming physical and emotional impact that abdominal cancer surgery has on a woman. In essence I agree with Dr. Goldman’s opinion regarding the consequences of surgery.
“The thing I find many surgeons fail to appreciate is that an operation is a form of controlled violence on the patient. If surgeons thought about what they do to patients on a daily basis, I suspect many wouldn’t do it. Even the most successful surgery causes severe (albeit manageable) pain. For patients relieved of their condition, post-operative pain is bearable—but not so much when the surgery results in complications or worse.“
Dr. Brian Goldman, The Secret Language of Doctors
Finally on June 18, 2012, I signed the appropriate documents and critical surgery was skillfully performed. When I awoke in the recovery room I sensed that my crisis was at last resolved. Although only half-conscious, I was filled with elation as they informed me that the procedure to correct my obstruction had been successful. The primary cause was established to be scar tissue from my previous operations and now my digestive system was expected to function normally again. Most of all, I was comforted and reassured by the fact that my ovarian cancer had not visibly metastasized to other organs in my body. After a long, tumultuous journey my fundamental trust in my surgeon had ultimately been restored.