Years after the diagnosis, I was sitting in a clammy hospital chair, at last undergoing the tedious process of chemotherapy, poisonous goo dripping into my bloodstream. It wasn’t anything like as bad as the doctor had predicted: I barely felt sick and my hair didn’t even fall out.
I found myself reflecting on the connection between my day job – advising companies and individuals on how to communicate, often during times of crisis – and what I was going through. How should people talk to you when they know you have cancer, and how should you talk to them?
The first rule of professional corporate communications is to divide your audience into stakeholders: categories of people who matter to you in different ways. For a big company, these would include your shareholders, employees, customers, regulators, the media, all requiring a subtly different but fundamentally consistent message.
The second rule is that effective communications is a two-way process, as much about listening as saying something. You can’t really communicate unless you are prepared to enter into a dialogue with your stakeholders. This means taking on board what others are saying before fine-tuning what you say to them.
In the case of the cancer patient, I realised, there are a number of stakeholder groups, chiefly the medical profession, your friends and family and your colleagues at work. How you communicate to them, and how they communicate to you in return, is going to be a crucial part of your cancer experience.
Let’s start with the medical profession. As a cancer patient, you will spend a great deal of time with doctors and nurses. In the six years since my diagnosis, I have been in the care of four consultants, three GPs, two counsellors and umpteen nurses. To a woman, these are all dedicated and highly professional people, who have skilfully kept me alive and well.
Yet my experience, and that of many others I have got to know over the years, is that of being treated as a patient rather than a person. You are handled as a bundle of symptoms, blood counts and the like, not as a human being with hopes and fears. To quote a friend who is recovering from prostate cancer, “I was treated like a brick, and all the doctors wanted to do was move me from one pile of bricks to another.”
A cancer patient is vulnerable and sensitive
Frankly, in the final analysis, I don’t mind being handled like a brick or if my doctors’ people skills are less than optimal: what matters is that they get the diagnosis right and give you the right treatment. Yet a cancer patient is vulnerable and sensitive, the emotional impact of the disease often quite devastating.
Fine, doctors are busy people and a degree of professional distance is to be expected. But being passed from pillar to post from one expert to another, without any one person in charge, and no one asking about your emotional state, is discombobulating.
For me, the best experience in the first months of cancer was being introduced to a counsellor. At last, there was someone who had time to explore my uncertainties and anxieties. For the first time, I stopped feeling alone. I realised that others, in fact millions of others, have been through the same process.
In summary, the communications challenge for the medical profession is to treat the patient with more humanity. Immediate access to a counsellor should be a priority. There should be one person overseeing the cancer journey. GPs and specialist consultants should explain what to expect during the staging process and beyond. Patients should be made to feel that they are not alone, and early on be introduced to networks of carers and fellow patients.
Communications is a two way street. Patients listen acutely to every cryptic word from their doctors. But we should not be afraid to speak out, to ask the awkward question – and to voice hopes and fears. Oncologists should ask for feedback from patients on everything they do: in short, they should listen, too.
Please feel free to talk about your experiences by leaving a comment below.