Anecdotes From Cancer Surgery Practice: Giving And Receiving

In this post, I share an anecdote about a woman who took years to overcome her melancholy following her cancer diagnosis, and how she finally did it.

48-year-old Vanaja (name changed), a banker, came to see me in 2012. She was seeking a third opinion. “I cannot believe I have tongue cancer. I have no bad habits – I have never even tasted paan. And this ulcer I have on my tongue – it’s so small and absolutely painless. I only showed it to my dentist because it was there for more than a month!”

It took several out-patient visits (and a third biopsy review!) before we could even discuss her treatment – “We need to remove a part of your tongue – but since the cancer is small and on the side edge of the tongue, your speaking, chewing and swallowing will be near normal.” “What? Cut out my tongue? How will I function? How will I work if I can’t speak to my clients or my colleagues?”

We set up a multidisciplinary tumor board meeting with her and discussed the options again – and the pros and cons of each treatment option (including radiotherapy instead of surgery).

Finally, she decided to go ahead with the surgery. The operation went smoothly. The postoperative pathology results confirmed that the cancer was in stage 1. Within a couple of months, her speech was perfectly normal. It was an excellent clinical outcome.

But during her follow-up visits, Vanaja always seemed gloomy. “I still can’t believe I got cancer. I feel life has no meaning.” This went on for over two years.

One day, I was seeing an elderly man with a newly diagnosed tongue cancer. While counseling him and his family, I realized I had glimpsed Vanaja in the waiting area. I went there and asked her if she would speak to this man and share her treatment experience and recovery – in my practice, I encourage informal support groups and “buddy systems.” She agreed to talk with him and I thought no more of it.

Six months later, during her next follow-up, Vanaja had a smile on her face. “I am doing better. And Mr. David is doing fine too – he had to take radiotherapy after his operation because his cancer was more advanced than mine. But now he is recovering well. I speak with him and his wife every once in a while – I even shared the contact of a speech therapist who lives close to them.”

I was amazed at her transformation. Gone was the dejected Vanaja of the last three years. A simple act of supporting someone else in a similar situation had made her rediscover her own zest for life.

Different things motivate each of us. But a common thread among human beings is the happiness we derive by helping others – especially those whose predicaments we can empathize with.

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