He reminded doctors that some patients might have a better ability to handle the stark truth than others. “I met physicians who were optimistic and some who were pessimistic,” he said. “I prefer the truth, even if it’s not so rosy. Of course, other people may not be able to handle the whole truth.”
Explore This IssueOctober 2012
It may be hard for patients to really process and appreciate what doctors tell them about what the experience of a laryngectomy will be like, said Dr. Brook. Doctors told him what he would be dealing with, but whatever they said could not actually prepare him. “When I woke up with tubes, IVs, catheters and no voice, it was so different from everything they told me,” he said. He told the otolaryngologist audience to tell their patients “again and again” about what their experience may be.
“It’s important to tell the patient what to expect in the future,” he said. “Spend more time, allow more time for communication…. Make sure the patient understands what is happening, and understand how difficult it is for the patient to deal with the new reality.”
The most effective communication, though, is nonverbal, he said. At the end of every visit, Dr. Brook’s otolaryngologist would give him a hug. “There is no substitute for the power of a hug,” he said. “Each hug meant more to me than the thousand words he said. This is because I knew he really cared.”
Additionally, depression can be a consequence of the cancer, Dr. Brook said. Head and neck cancer, openly visible to others, leads to one of the highest suicide rates among all cancer types, he said. Having difficulty speaking can keep people “all bottled in,” he said. “You cannot express your feelings and emotions the way you did before—our facial expressions are not really the same,” he said. “Getting the patient on anti-depression medication is very useful in some patients.”
His throat cancer has come with some advantages, he has realized. First, he doesn’t have to wear ties, “which is great, because I never liked them,” he said. He also doesn’t snore anymore. And he said the ordeal has made him a better doctor. “I always cared for people,” he said, “but now I have a greater appreciation to what they actually feel, and that makes me more human and more humble.”
‘Like a Friend’
In another address, guitarist Blue O’Connell told the audience how getting a cochlear implant revived her dream of becoming a professional musician. While she was a serious student studying classical music her hearing degraded. The first realization came when a friend invited her over to listen a piece and O’Connell couldn’t hear the music.