Caring for the Cancer Patient

Caring for the Cancer Patient
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In a small restaurant north of San Francisco, I overheard a woman complaining to a friend about the ingratitude of a relative diagnosed with breast cancer. “I don’t understand it,” the woman said. “I tried to be helpful. Isn’t that what you do for family? I told her of the wonderful new supplements I read about on the Internet; things to control her cancer. She almost bit my head off when I offered suggestions. I mean, these weren’t off-the-cuff recommendations. Some came from Dr. Oz. You’d think she’d be more appreciative.”

The woman tried to be helpful and probably was compassionate, but she didn’t understand her relative entered a different world after receiving a cancer diagnosis.

Her agenda of “health through better nutrition,” was something her relative who faced an uncertain prognosis didn’t want to hear.

Changes in Perception

Cancer, either stable or progressive, shapes almost all experiences. The presence of a life-altering disease affects people in more ways than cancer-free people may understand. It often becomes evident when a cancer-free person argues with a friend or loved one his interpretation of what they both experienced was not accurate or an over-reaction. It’s a problem of different perceptions, not honesty.

The changes in perceptions caused by illness or disease were evident when I was at San Francisco State University and treated a young woman who had a stroke. Difficulties in processing information remained after she recovered her speech and language. What had been fulfilling interactions, such as having an intimate conversation with someone in a crowded room, became confusing.

The types of words were no different than those spoken at social events she attended before the stroke, but her ability to understand them in the presence of noise was impaired.

She told me her friends didn’t understand the cognitive changes the stroke caused. She walked without any paralysis, seemed to understand everything and spoke with the same eloquence she had before the stroke.

They couldn’t see the stroke’s effects, so they didn’t modify their expectations of what their friend was capable of doing. They would choose favorite restaurants, and because they were considered “happening places” they were noisy. Noise for my client meant it would be an evening of confusion, frustration, and humiliation. She would look at someone who was speaking, smile, nod her head, and have no idea what the person was saying. The experience was devastating. Her stroke, just as cancer does, changed her world.


Even knowing someone has cancer doesn’t sensitize people to the changes the disease causes. A patient struggled to hold on to short-term memory as his brain tumor grew. He could keep a multitude of dates in his mind before cancer. With the cancer’s progression, even writing down the dates didn’t help since he forgot to look at his calendar. When a relative who knew of the diagnosis chastised him for forgetting a birthday party, he realized how few people could understand his new world.

Different Worlds

The philosopher, Merleu-Ponty, wrote about the futility of believing reality is objective. We see the world, according to phenomenologists, through a complex array of filters that distort emotions, feelings, and events in ways consistent with each person’s values and needs.  The distorting effects of these filters become evident when we crunch information into something going beyond observations.

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