As physicians, we must take extra time with our cancer patients. We must show genuine empathy. —Sigsbee W. Duck, MD
Explore This IssueJune 2019
“Emotions run amuck while going through cancer treatment and they are very difficult to control,” Dr. Duck found out. “When I finally returned to work in Wyoming prior to radiation therapy, I was not successful—or nice. I was curt and downright rude. I had not realized the emotional toll cancer takes on patients.”
Radiation therapy was next. “Despite having sent hundreds of patients for these treatments, it was at this point that I realized that I really didn’t know anything about it. Now, more than ever, I genuinely admire my cancer patients, particularly the ones without the financial means or family support like I was blessed to have who must complete this therapy.” Dr. Duck recalled an older man who sat next to him before his first radiation treatment. “He had been told his radiation was palliative and to get his affairs in order. He asked why I was there and I told him and he said good luck. The next day, he was not there and I never saw him again. It is sad and disconcerting to see all these patients every day, and suddenly they are not there anymore.”
On his last day of radiation, the waiting room was full and he was informed that the machine was down. “I figured my options were to get mad, sulk, or cry. Well, I’m a crier,” he said. The other patients with whom he had bonded huddled around him for support, the machine was ultimately repaired and with radiation therapy completed, he finally left the Huntsman.
Dr. Duck’s long and emotionally difficult experience with surgery and radiation were not only grueling, but also educational. “The post-traumatic effects of surgery and radiation therapy, especially as radiation is over-utilized to treat this disease, particularly when used in conjunction with chemotherapy, are very real,” Dr. Duck stated. “And radiation is definitely the gift that keeps on giving—for the rest of your life. Your taste is permanently altered, you have pain and cramping with exercise, and you can never taste or swallow effectively.”
“And there is a stigma associated with HPV H&N cancer. Even my colleagues make jokes about sexual transmission. I had been married for 33 years, and I found no humor in their jokes,” he said. “Frankly, who knows what bacteria any of us are harboring as otolaryngologists? My entire family has been tested and cleared and we have received the HPV vaccine including the P-16 and P-18 strains.
“No matter how many H&N cancer patients you have cared for, always remember the absolute feelings of fear and helplessness that your patients experience. As physicians, we must take extra time with our cancer patients. We must show genuine empathy. Sit down by the bed as if you are not busy. These days, I share my experience with my patients and it reassures them in a positive way.” Dr. Duck added. “Most importantly, an opportunity to convey information to a patient’s family and exude a feeling of optimism and trust as to the care we are taking of their loved ones, is one of the greatest opportunities we have as physicians—to demonstrate compassion and caring through simple communication and basic kindness.”
Dr. Duck’s hard-earned message is this: “As cancer patients we are always looking over our shoulders; fear, anxiety, and reality are always lurking. More than ever [these patients] need a physician who is sensitive to that reality and who can show genuine empathy and caring.”