I have long supported teaching communication skills to clinicians who care for people with cancer. This is because every encounter with a patient is both challenging and exciting. As doctors, we bring the same understanding of the science to each of our patients, but our recommendations for care and treatment must reflect the values and choices made by patients and family caregivers. The only way to unearth these values and decisions is through communication.
Some of us are better communicators than others, but even the best still need coaching and feedback. We can always learn to ask better questions, to listen more attentively, and to recognize nonverbal cues. This allows us to create a safe space where patients can share their wishes, their fears, and their concerns.
Cancer clinicians quickly learn that a strong narrative can be an enormous help to a patient and caregiver trying to find meaning in their experiences and live with, and through, many challenging situations. Against the backdrop of suffering, loss, and grief that accompany a serious illness, there are many moments of joy, grace, and inspiration that warm our hearts and teach us all valuable life lessons. In connecting with patients, clinicians become a part of their story, and these patients and caregivers become an important part of the clinicians’ personal narratives in turn. This meaningful and deeply personal work has a lasting emotional impact on clinicians. We also carry an emotional load of cancer, which builds over time and refuses to stay in the pockets of our white coats when we hang them up at the end of the day and head home.
I wondered for many years how my work affected my children’s outlook on the world. With two oncologists as parents, my children had an early start in understanding the finitude of life. And although we were careful about the content of our conversations, I suspect they noticed a look of worry or sadness when a distracted parent was lost in their own thoughts or reflecting on the events of the day. Oncologists with young children often wonder how and when to explain to their kids what they do every day.
So when ASCO’s Conquer Cancer Foundation, the philanthropic organization that supports ASCO’s young investigators and education programs including Cancer.Net, asked me to record a Your Stories podcast that would be shared with a professional and public audience, I offered my story. I invited my daughter Lauren Goldstein, now a doctoral candidate in social psychology, to join me in an unscripted conversation about her childhood memories, focusing on how my work impacted our family life.
We reminisced about a family visit to the home of a patient who hosted us for Sunday dinner. Many generations of her family attended, and we fondly remember the delicious homemade meatballs and the warmth and love we felt in her home. We also talked about stressful times, specifically about a summer holiday that stands out in my memory because a dear young patient was approaching the end of her life. Lauren reassured me that my grief went unnoticed, and her empathic response worked like a charm. I hope my story reminds listeners and readers that human connections cannot be bottled or compartmentalized and that ripples of compassion sustain and carry us through difficult times.
Your Stories is a prerecorded audio podcast series. It can be listened to online or downloaded to your computer. More information about each podcast is available at the Conquer Cancer website.
These podcasts were recorded in collaboration with StoryCorps, a national non-profit dedicated to preserving and sharing humanity’s stories.