What Cancer Patients Can Teach Medical Students

When I began my cancer treatment almost eight years ago, I didn’t fully understand the crucial role that patients have in the education and training of medical professionals. I was new to the realm of cancer patients, so at my initial consultation with my oncologist I didn’t anticipate that I would be taken to a conference room. I certainly didn’t expect that our first meeting would include several residents and doctors-in-training.

Later, when I had the opportunity to read the orientation booklet that I was given, the formal relationship between gynecologic cancer patients and student doctors at my hospital started to become clearer to me. Stated unambiguously was the following information:

The Tom Baker Cancer Centre and Foothills Hospital form part of the University of Calgary teaching facilities and you can, therefore, expect to have doctors-in-training involved in your care. They work to assist your specialist, who supervises all their activities according to their level of competence. They may also participate in routine check-ups and will report to the specialist on your behalf.

Throughout the course of my cancer journey I’ve discovered how much we, as patients, help facilitate the transformation of young medical students into proficient and empathetic health care experts. Here are some of the most important lessons that I feel we teach physicians in training.

People with cancer are brave and have a remarkable capacity for resilience. Women with ovarian cancer courageously put up with a terrible illness and refuse to give up in the face of adversity. Whether we are talking about cancer, disabling cardiovascular disease or other chronic illnesses — patients often inspire young doctors with their bravery and determination. For example, I could tell that the women on my cancer unit were having an impact on the residents when they made rounds each day. Sometimes they would witness women surrounded by their visiting loved ones, still managing to laugh, smile and remain optimistic, despite the horrendous circumstances.

Life can change in an instant. A chronic or serious illness such as cancer often strikes out of the blue. One minute everything is okay and you seem not to have a care in the world and then everything is turned upside down by a shock diagnosis. Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had no true sense of how precarious our existence is or of how uncertain my future had probably always been. Then, on November 3, 2011, I learned that the direction of my entire life could change in just a single day. We help young residents to remember that becoming a patient with a life-threatening illness can happen to anyone in an instant, even them.

As a doctor you should know how to communicate effectively with your patients. Illness can suffocate even the bravest of souls. Diagnosis and procedures can be complicated, and a patient often feels vulnerable and confused when they are at their oncologist’s office or visiting the cancer centre. Personally, I found this to be true regardless of my reason for being there, it didn’t matter if it was for chemotherapy, an exam or a follow-up. From the perspective of an anxious cancer patient, the absolute worst thing that could happen would be for me to walk out of an appointment without understanding a word my doctor said. It’s a doctor’s responsibility to explain everything in a way their patient can understand. As a physician, you shouldn’t get upset or become annoyed if you are asked to repeat details of the patient’s treatment plan or to clarify instructions.

As a doctor you should be able to empathize with your patients. To me the best doctors take time to connect with their patients, and they truly care what we are thinking and feeling. If your patient is feeling cold, arrange for a blanket. If they’re thirsty, get some water. Without addressing these underlying human needs, impressive hospital designs and state-of-the-art equipment are useless. For most patients the fancy ceiling and lighting are insignificant compared with medical staff who will treat them with compassion and dignity. I have one particular memory from during my rigorous cancer treatment.

It was in the middle of the night and I had already spent several grueling hours in the emergency room when I was finally sent for a CT scan. The doctor performing the scan was very empathetic toward me. He immediately noticed that I appeared cold and nauseous, so he offered me a blanket as well as a small basin just in case I was sick. Next, he saw that my IV had been put in poorly by someone in the ER and that it required redoing. However, instead of changing my IV before the scan, he explained that he didn’t want to put me through the unpleasant procedure right away. We ultimately used the imperfect IV line to administer the contrast solution for the scan and it held out until we were finished.

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