A Fifth Question

The New York Times recently ran an article by Susan Gubar, “Living With Cancer: The Good Patient Syndrome”, that questioned the importance of being a model patient. When Susan was first diagnosed, she was agreeable, nodding politely when meeting with her doctors. She worried that if she asked too many questions, she would be unintentionally neglected or harmed by her medical team.

One woman in Sharsheret’s Embrace group for women living with advanced cancer noted that each time she went to an oncologist appointment she felt unnoticed by the office staff and her doctor. One day, she went straight to her appointment from a Brit (circumcision). She was dressed up and wearing makeup. The office staff was quite complimentary and paid her a lot of attention. Her oncologist, who typically spoke to her while reading her file, engaged in eye contact and remarked how wonderful she looked. This woman decided that from then on, she would put on some lipstick and go to her appointments well-dressed.  She told the group she felt as if she was now “dating” her oncologist - she wanted to be noticed.

Many women call Sharsheret with questions following a doctor’s appointment or scans – questions that are reasonable to ask their doctor during an appointment. Yet, they are afraid to ask these questions because they don’t want to come across as untrusting. When you have concerns, you may not pick up the phone and call the doctor because you “don’t want to bother them”. You worry about being labeled a “difficult patient”. At the end of the day, it’s your body, it’s your life.  Don’t be afraid to speak up and advocate for yourself because if you don’t, something serious may go unnoticed.

As we prepare for the Passover holiday, we are reminded of how the Jewish people were obedient and compliant for fear of further harm at the hands of the Egyptians. Moses was also worried about his ability to stand up to Pharaoh on behalf of the Jewish people, worried that he would make an already bad situation worse. In reality, it was only when Moses spoke up and advocated for his people that he and the Jews were set free. What would have become of the Jewish people if Moses did not stand up for them? I’m adding this question to the already established Four Questions that will be recited at my Seder as a reminder to empower myself in the pursuit of health and well-being.

Keeping The “Seder” In Your Life

In the Passover story, we learn that the Jewish people are told, from an authoritative and reliable source, that they are to leave Egypt immediately in order to save their lives. They quickly gather their families and belongings, including unleavened bread which had no time to rise, and race out of Egypt. There was seemingly no time to think or make plans. Thus, the journey toward well-being begins for the Jewish people.

The center of the Passover holiday is the Seder, the Hebrew word for order. I can not imagine that the Jewish people felt particularly orderly during this time. Yet, somehow, they managed.

Leave Egypt, receive the Torah, go to Israel – that was the order. As we know, even the best laid out plans, even under reliable authority, have twists and turns. The Jews had to deal with the Red Sea challenge and travel in the desert. There was the whole golden calf debacle. They regrouped, took a breath, and gained wisdom, as they received the Torah. And eventually, they reached the land of Israel.    

The journey is similar when diagnosed with an illness. The doctor tells you that you have cancer, which catapults you immediately into action mode. You may be scrambling to make phone calls, set up appointments, and make logistical arrangements.

Surgery, treatment, then survivorship. That’s the seder – that’s the order.  For many, there are unexpected occurrences such as infections post-surgery, changing the medication regimen, needing to choose a different reconstruction option, or perhaps a recurrence. The lesson we learn from the Jewish people is that as important as it is to have order, allow for unexpected challenges. Take moments along the journey to self-reflect and to gain wisdom. Remember that you may second guess yourself.  Trust your treatment team, trust your support system, and most importantly, trust yourselves. You are resilient. You will find your way.