For patients facing cancer and other serious illnesses, the greatest obstacle to health and well-being is fear.
A recent patient facing aggressive lymphoma wrote: “Suddenly you find yourself in a place which was previously unimaginable — or at the very least undesirable — for you or anyone else.”
As we worked together over the past 26 months, I observed that each time we faced her fears together by way of a late night text, an informal house call or a long talk, she was able to meet the most ominous situations with peace.
She taught me that physicians should be available to patients, without judgment, especially when patients are most afraid.
Physicians have a unique opportunity to get to know patients, learn about the patients’ views of themselves and the world, and help them express, understand and address their fears in order to achieve health.
We are taught as physicians that we should not get too close to our patients. If we do, it will hurt too much if they die.
It does hurt, but that should not stop us.
Of course, we need to maintain perspective so that we can provide objective advice when necessary.
But does this require that we omit emotion?
This patient taught me how deeply the physician’s language and demeanor impact the spirit of the patient.
When this patient was afraid, she looked closely at me to see if I was afraid. She listened for concern in my voice, watched to see if I would look her into her eyes or look away, and waited to see if I was comfortable making the time to listen and work through the fear with her.
When she sensed my commitment, she relaxed, and we worked at transforming the fear. Once this was accomplished, her health considerations were addressed with more clarity.
This patient often surprised her physicians, for once she quieted her concerns, she often healed in unexpected ways.
Even when patients have advanced disease, when empowered and supported, they deal with inconceivable challenges without fear.
Near the end of her life, this patient faced her situation with incredible strength and grace.