Cancer is an insidious disease. The cells have an agenda of their own, betraying the body. It wreaks havoc on souls and families. I doubt you can find a single person whose life has not been touched by it in some way.
Not only does it affect people directly, the tentacles of cancer spread out and grab all those nearby. It makes the war personal for everyone in its reach – even the people who treat it.
The uniqueness of cancer bonds the providers and patients together. And the fact that cancer evokes such fear makes breaking the news one of the most stressful moments in a health care provider’s job.
Dr. Manpreet Sandhu, medical oncologist, and Jill Emmons, cancer patient navigator, with OSF HealthCare Saint Anthony’s Health Center talk about this challenging part of being a health care professional that is often overlooked.
“Most of us who chose to go into health care are by nature, compassionate, loving people. We have a lot of empathy for others, rejoicing in the good and hurting through the bad,” Dr. Sandhu said. “And cancer is one of those diseases that magnifies this relationship.
“Cancer can be both predictable and volatile, causing anxiety for the patient and their family. Everybody is on a roller coaster ride of emotions.”
Laying the foundation
The “breaking the news” consultation is an essential cornerstone for building trust, according to Dr. Sandhu. Cancer treatments usually involve frequent treatments for several months, and it is crucial to have a strong relationship with your patient.
“I have been in the room when Dr. Sandhu informs a patient of their diagnosis, and it’s one of the hardest parts of my job,” said Jill Emmons. “It can be very traumatic for everyone, especially for the ones who had no symptoms and are blindsided by the diagnosis.
“You don’t know if they have a support system or anyone at all who will be there for them. It can be heartbreaking, so we stay positive and focus on treatment options.”
As opposed to many other diseases, a cancer diagnosis can be drawn out and may require a person to wait several weeks for lab results. That time is stressful for the patient and their families.
“Yes, I agree. It’s best to be honest and straightforward with people and focus on treatment options,” Dr. Sandhu said. “My mentor taught me to pause and give them all the time they need to comprehend the news. It’s in those moments that my heart aches.”
It is also during those moments that Dr. Sandhu and Emmons switch gears and become the person’s advocate, friend and cheerleaders: advising, encouraging, listening and taking notes.
“After they hear the word ‘cancer,’ they don’t hear anything else. That’s when I become their eyes and ears. I start taking notes, so I can coordinate their appointments and answer their questions later,” Emmons said. “We have to stay grounded and help them to focus on moving forward. When you are dealing with cancer day after day, it is difficult to stay positive and upbeat, but we have to for them.”