A Deeper Form of Empathy for Cancer Patients
- Theresa Brown, 57, is an oncology and hospice nurse who lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After providing care for so many years, the roles were suddenly reversed in 2017 when Theresa, herself, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
- Now a five-year survivor, the published author wrote about her eye-opening experience of what is lacking in healthcare in her book, Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient.
- Theresa, like many of the patients she has helped, says she was terrified after hearing about her diagnosis. Luckily, it was stage 1, but no matter what type of cancer or what stage, we are conditioned with fear upon hearing we are facing one of the world’s biggest enemies: cancer.
- The mother of twin boys longed for warmth and empathy during her unfortunate journey, and now encourages people to push back a little with medical workers. We are all human and have a place in this world, and should all be treated with respect, especially while going through cancer.
The published author wrote about her eye-opening experience of what is lacking in healthcare in her third book, Healing: When a Nurse Becomes a Patient.Read More
The mother of twins has also been featured in the New York Times and on CNN.com. Theresa holds a BSN from the University of Pittsburgh, and received a PhD in English from the University of Chicago, according to her website.
“Working with cancer patients, it was like: that’s who I take care of, that’s not who I am,” Theresa said. “So when I became one, it knocked that whole idea of invulnerability down. Suddenly, I had to realize that wow, I’m actually human.”
Cancer Was So Different From the Other Side
Theresa, like many of the patients she has helped, says she was terrified after hearing about her diagnosis. Luckily, it was stage 1, but no matter what type of cancer or what stage, we are conditioned with fear upon hearing we are facing one of this world’s biggest enemies: cancer.
Even scarier for Theresa, she was shocked that there “wasn’t more effort done” to coordinate her care. She felt like no one was really looking after her, that it was “DIY cancer care.”
Sadly, depending on the facility or level of volume of other patients, many others feel this way while battling cancer, and it’s quite possible that Theresa faced even more neglect given her career. Perhaps it was automatically assumed she knows what to do and doesn’t need as much hand-holding.
COVID and its effect on humanity and the medical system has certainly not helped, and many areas in a wide range of industries have reportedly been lacking.
“I felt like: Why don’t they give out a sheet that says this is what you have and this is what the prognosis looks like? Nobody gave me anything in writing like that,” Teresa recalled. “Nobody ever said, ‘We’ve got this. This is the most common kind of breast cancer. We know how to treat this. You are going to be OK.’ That would have made it so much better able to tolerate things.”
Luckily, Theresa also acknowledged positive aspects, like getting stellar recommendations for a specific doctor, but she says that “there was confusion about whether I would need chemotherapy or not,” and countless phone calls. None with the actual doctor.
“This is a very vulnerable time for patients, so there needs to be a system in place that can always address what people need.”
Encouraging Other Patients to Advocate for Themselves
After the constant letdowns that had been building up throughout her unfortunate experience, Theresa then became enraged when she went to schedule a biopsy, and the medical worker dismissed her, nonchalantly informing her that the scheduler left for the day. This lack of concern or compassion for Theresa was her snapping point. “It was like a breaking of trust right in that moment and I felt like I worked really hard to have patients trust me.”
“It surprised me and made me realize we don’t know what our patients are going through. We don’t know how something that to a scheduler feels like a small thing — ‘I can’t do it today, I’ll do it tomorrow’ — feels enormous to the patient.”
Theresa says that she came to a point when she realized, “I’m being an easy patient and it’s terrible. I feel like I’m not even a human being anymore.”
Theresa is now sharing her story from a deeper place of empathy, and says she would encourage every patient to ask questions.
“Don’t yell at people, be appropriate, but push back a little bit. We’ve enculturated patients with this idea that you have to be meek in order to get care, and you don’t.”
The 5-year survivor, who had a lumpectomy and radiation to treat her breast cancer says she “longed for warmth and kindness” during her treatment, but did acknowledge that medical professionals are unfortunately overworked. There simply needs to be a better system in place.
“We now have electronic health records, which are monsters that constantly want more and more information from us,” she describes of the behind the scenes pressures and changes for doctors and nurses.
There’s also the “generating revenue” aspect of the health industry. “Those pressures create less time for patients and also less ability to be human with them.”
“We’ve created this system that doesn’t see patients’ humanity and also doesn’t see clinicians’ humanity. I would love to make a difference in how people experience health care.”