“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
October is almost upon us! In addition to being Domestic Violence Awareness month, it is also Breast Cancer Awareness month. As a surgical PA, I have the opportunity to interact with many different types of
patients people. However, one group that always touches me is the breast cancer population. Women who have surgery for breast cancer all have one thing in common- they have been through something traumatic. Many of them disguise it well, but the signs are there.
They come in to the hospital at a time when they are vulnerable. They are in limbo- waiting for pathology that will ultimately determine their fate. Will they need more surgery? chemo? radiation? Many of them were uneventfully young and healthy until this happened. It came out of the blue and hit like a brick wall. Now each is coping with fear, surgery, pain, anxiety, the unknown. Imagine not knowing if you’ll be alive to see your children or grandchildren grow up. Dying is a very real fear to these women. On phone call could change their lives all over again.
Being someone who has lived through trauma, who has spent time walking through life as a shell, and who has had her world turned on it’s head- I understand on some level what these women are going through. No, I have never had to deal with the threat of cancer, but I have had my life threatened. I know the feeling of the world not being safe, of feeling betrayed by your previous sense of well-being. I know what it is like to be overwhelmed to the point of not being able to breathe. Somehow, these women seem to catch on that I know. Maybe it’s because I recognize the look in their eye or the tell tale posture. Maybe it’s because when I tell them it will get better a little at a time, they know I mean it. Sometimes, when a patient breaks into tears and gets seemingly hysterical over something seemingly minor (and inevitably apologizes profusely for it) I’ll tell her that I understand she’s overwhelmed, that it isn’t fair, and is far too much for one person to handle. I’ll point out that it’s easy to get upset over minor things when your whole life has been turned upside, and then I’ll get an “aha” type look back with an expression of “you do understand”.
In the past few weeks, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of women who have really opened up to me about what they are going through. One of the surgeons I work with told me that it is probably because I make them feel safe. I can’t help but be touched. These women are so incredibly brave, yet they beat themselves up for not being stronger. Instead of being frustrated at not handling their situation better, each should pat herself on the back for being able to handle it at all! None of them ever acknowledge what amazing they strength they possess. Instead, they only point out what they aren’t able to do. Usually, the primary concern is taking care of someone else or worrying about how a family member is going to cope. Even if the face of the catastrophic, their thoughts are of everyone else. They truly are some of the bravest people I know. I feel honored to work with them. I am blessed by each of them in a very unique way. So many have left an imprint on my heart- and I make it a point to tell the ones who do. The most meaningful words I’ve heard from a patient came recently “I’m glad you were here”.
Moments like that make me feel that if it is possible to find a blessing in the trauma of abuse, it’s that I can relate better to the people I care for. Not that I wasn’t a compassionate person before, but now I can empathize. I can also tell them I know they’ll get through it and it will get better and really mean it. Being someone who has been through trauma, it holds so much more weight to hear it from someone who has been in that dark place. That is the best service I can provide in my care. Sometimes, the most important healing I do as a health care worker is not actual “medicine.” It’s providing an understanding ear, a shoulder to lean or cry on, a hand to hold, a hug, and lots of tissues. What I get in return is so much more than I can provide to them. It’s amazing how a syrup covered hug and small words of gratitude can mean so much- and they do!
I am truly blessed. I have a career where I really have an opportunity to make a terrifying experience a little less frightening for people. No one ever wants to be in the position of being in the hospital- especially needing surgery. My job is to make it as minimally traumatic as possible. Never underestimate the power of a simple act of kindness. It can make such a great impact in a person’s life. Most people will go through something traumatic at least once in their life, and it doesn’t matter what is- loss of a loved one, injury, illness, abuse. The struggle and the grief are the same. It hard to know what a person is going through on any given day. That is why we should keep in mind that everyone we encounter could very well be fighting a battle harder than our own.
I want to dedicate this post to all the amazing, pink ladies who are battling for their lives. You are strong, you are powerful, you are beautiful, and you are inspiration to the rest of us.