The importance of caring in the doctor’s office

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Cancer treatment involves operating rooms, chemotherapy protocols, and high tech radiation therapy equipment, all of which extend and improve the lives of people with cancer.

But when I talk with people being treated for cancer, they don’t comment on the equipment or the science involved in their care. Rather, they focus on the quality of the human interaction they have with their caregivers.

Those of us with cancer want to connect with and feel kindness from our doctors, nurses, and therapists. We don’t need to be friends, but we want to sense that we’re somehow all in this together.

With cancer, this begins when you first hear the diagnosis. We may not remember what the doctor said, but we always remember if the doctor cared.

Every staff person makes a difference. I recently stopped by a doctor’s office and the receptionist was busy on the phone. She didn’t bother to recognize my presence even though I was standing in front of her for several minutes. All she had to do was to smile or wave or give some indication that she recognized that I was a person and that she would be with me in a moment. She didn’t.

I’ve also experienced some incredible kindnesses from receptionists. Many go out of their way to be helpful and welcoming. I’m often struck by how a genuine smile or kind word can affect the rest of my day.

These human interactions are important in any medical encounter, but they’re critical for those of us with cancer. Cancer patients are raw – we’re scared and our emotions are close to the surface. Every kindness is savored and every slight is magnified.

I encourage patients to speak up and thank their doctors, nurses, therapists, and office staff when they sense genuine kindness and compassion. If you’re working with cancer patients, you aren’t allowed to have a bad day because your patients are almost always having a worse day. It’s not an easy job and we should acknowledge when it’s done in a way that maintains and often enhances our sense of humanity.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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