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The Cancer Club

 Dr. William B. Applegate

(The following piece originally appeared as the final entry in Dr. Applegate’s blog.)

Soon after my diagnosis of lymphoma, I realized that I had become a member of a very warm and supportive club—the cancer patients’ club. I have yet to meet a person who has had cancer who does not know exactly what I mean when I speak of the Cancer Club. There is a way that most cancer patients or cancer survivors connect with each other—extraordinary interpersonal connectedness, with a heightened ability to sense and share in each other’s vulnerability. The amount of support Club members provide each other is life enhancing. All it takes is a certain exchanged glance and a few simple words to feel the power of the Club. All cancer patients will tell you they would prefer to never have been inducted into the Club, but all also say that they are deeply grateful that it exists.

At first I thought that the Club had no dues; you received your diagnosis and you are in. This is true in terms of initiation, but there is a form of dues to be paid to maintain active membership. To maintain active membership, one must be able to connect with fellow members at a deep emotional level. Each active member must be able to show and feel true empathy and actively support other members.

Two recent examples come to mind. At a recent meeting of the Board of the American College of Physicians, a woman on our Board approached me. Although we have been colleagues on the same board, we had never had a personal conversation between the two of us. I did know that she had been treated for breast cancer. This woman sought me out to discuss her own emotional experiences with her treatment and wondered if mine had been similar. Of course, they were. She went on to warn me of some psychological events that occurred to her when her hair returned. By allowing herself to be vulnerable and share her story she allowed me to understand some potential pitfalls that lie ahead for me. Our conversation easily transcended the usual masks or barriers that exist between professionals in a business setting. I admired her courage in approaching me, but it seemed that it had become second nature to her.

Recently I was in the Medical Center box at a football game. I did not know that one of the invited visitors had battled a very serious form of cancer for years. As I was introduced to this man, his face seemed like a mask—determined, a bit sad. His wife told me that he was here for a consultation with our cancer center doctors. When I said that I was also was one of their cancer patients, the man’s mask suddenly melted. In its place there was a look of mutual empathy, connectedness, and appreciation between two members of the Cancer Club. During the game, we had the opportunity to discuss a number of things, things that would never be discussed outside of the Club.

Of course there are many other such “disease” clubs: stroke, heart failure, and chronic pulmonary disease come to mind as examples. In fact, all kinds of life’s misfortunes may offer a chance for empathetic connectivity among those that share that particular misfortune. A question comes to mind. If a person is in one of these clubs or shared empathy groups, has that person gained greater empathy for so many others who have suffered misfortune in life? I believe that answer is often yes.

Interestingly, our doctors and nurses are always honorary members of these “disease” clubs. So much of our emotional strength is derived from our interactions with our health care providers. One of the things that our visitor to the football box told me was that he felt a greater sense of empathy and personal connectedness from our cancer center doctors and staff than with any other health professionals he had previously encountered. This brings me to another point: although all of our health care providers are automatically ex officio members of these clubs, the price of continued active membership is the same as that for the patients. Since members of these clubs talk fairly frankly with each other I have learned this: It is a fairly simple thing for health care professionals to be active members of these clubs: a bit of empathy, a brief time of interpersonal conversation more than suffices. I am struck, though, at how upset some club members become toward physicians or other health professionals who either do not care to try or who are incapable of providing empathy. In my discussions, this is the most common reason Club members change health care providers.

So it is time for me to discontinue this blog.  I will end by saying a few things. The collegiality and mutual support we all give each other in our Medical Center is a thing we need to cherish and nurture every day we come to work here. There are so many truly capable and compassionate doctors, nurses and other health care professionals here that it makes me proud to be a part of all we do. I would like to personally thank and honor Billy Rice who made my original diagnosis and comforted me in one of my darkest hours. I would also like to thank and honor Bayard Powell who led my care and led me back to health. These two doctors (among many others here) are great physicians whose care and empathy support so many of us when we are sick and are welcome into all of our patients’ “Clubs”.

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Last Updated: 03-03-2016
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