The side effects of cancer treatment go beyond losing your hair

If someone asked me at this point in the year, which happens to be nearly the end of my first one, what I liked most about medical school, it would have to be the patient’s stories.

I could do without the hours of science classes and my utter lack of motivation to learn any subject that I am told is important. I could also do without the people who need to tell me how awesome they are at school and how they budget their free time performing hours and hours of shadowing and sucking up to physicians.

However, without the special lectures where patients share their stories, the kind of privileged story that only a doctor would be allowed to hear, I would completely forget why I was at all interested in being a physician in the first place.

Besides having to talk to a child, within our clinical rotations we also had to listen to a patient talk about the “psychosocial aspects of illness” day. Our patient was young, she had children, and she had cancer.

Cancer is an illness that we hear about what seems like every day on the news. We donate money, we walk for Relay for Life, and we even donate our hair to Locks of Love. We also typically know someone who has died of or survived cancer, and often we know both. I am no different, but that does not mean this woman’s story was “old news.” It definitely did not mean I wasn’t moved to near tears listening to her story of her struggle with breast cancer.

What was most unique about this woman’s struggle with cancer was not the effects of the disease itself, but the words that she used to describe it. Her observations were almost poetic and in one great example she explained how she waited in a plastic surgeon’s office to get reconstruction and as she sat next to beautiful women getting Botox or facelifts, and listened to them gripe about their little problems, all she wanted to do was unbutton her shirt and show them “real ones.”

This almost caricature of this waiting room experience puts into perspective her sense of isolation, her feelings of being different, and most of all, her perceived loss of womanhood. It made me want to call every plastic surgeon up and tell him or her that they need a separate waiting room for “those who really need surgery.” There really is nothing worse than feeling not like a woman, around women who just wanted to improve upon themselves for vain purposes.

In addition to this image, which will never leave my head, I had never thought about the side effects of cancer treatment beyond losing your hair. Yet, she had arthritis and she had severe depression. In fact, she described herself as having PTSD. Having also just listened to a PTSD patient describe in vivid detail the day-by-day, minute-by-minute activities of himself as a young soldier in Vietnam, at first I was confused by this comparison. This man had explained how no one wanted to hear from him when he got back from war, and no one even supported the war, so that when he came back, he was supposed to just be quiet and suffer in silence. Without people to talk to, over time he lost that feeling of emotion and he could describe in detail gory, horrible images as if he was passively involved in them, instead of an active participant.

He was damaged and his disease ruined a lot of his personal relationships with his family. How, then, could cancer, be like this for this woman who was smiling while she told us her story and still very much supported by her husband and children, a fellow student asked?

Politely, the woman replied, “You may not see my wounds with my clothes on, but I am wounded … and because of cancer, I will never be the same.”

That statement will stick with me forever.

Jessica Gold is a medical student.

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