12 Aug
Empathy for the Cancer Sufferer

Recently a social worker friend of mine reflected how, after only the first week of the quarantine, that her eyes have been opened to how cancer patients must feel all the time.  Many who receive a cancer diagnosis are caught by surprise when they are faced with this life-changing news.  Certain factors determine how each cancer sufferer’s life will change, but many of the changes are like our current pandemic response.

Most of us are experiencing a similar loss of normalcy.  Having church liturgy and activities, entertainment, favorite restaurants, holiday celebrations, family visits, weddings, and vacations taken away from us by something we can’t see, and we can’t rationalize with.  Lonely are those who are homebound, in nursing homes, and hospitals, and disappointed are the grandparents separated from their children and grandchildren.   Many are frustrated by economic traumas causing loss of income, loss of employment, and delayed plans for retirement, not to mention the fear of becoming infected with the virus.  Cancer sufferers and their caregivers know all these pains far too well.   

Looking out the fourth-floor window of a patient room one beautiful sunny day about a year ago, the husband of a woman who would die within a month thought aloud in my presence, “See all of those people walking down there? They don’t know anything of what we’re suffering.  We used to be like them.”

It’s difficult listening to the tearful outpouring of emotion from the wife of a cancer sufferer on the phone recently as she lamented the self-imposed quarantine that they have lived, for more than a year, from their neighbors and family.  She grieved audibly over the pain her husband hides as he coos to the infant grandson on FaceTime that he has never seen in person or been able to hold due to his illness, while their friends grumble on social media over the inconvenience of staying at home for a handful of weeks.

In the hallways and dining rooms of the hospital it’s possible to hear a similar refrain being discussed as now it’s late July and we are no longer weeks but months into this pandemic.  Frustration grows as all are likely tired of the constant reminders that the world has changed and, as a result, much of what has been considered normal in our daily interactions.  Especially disturbing are the politicized discussions that criticize the scientific and common-sense recommendations encouraging hand washing and mask wearing.  Being reminded that we, as hospital representatives, have an opportunity and a responsibility to help others in our community make healthy and safe decisions may feel like an added burden but there may be hidden positives amid the heaviness of the daily news.

Sensing our shared suffering connects us, even as we are socially distant, and recognizing in our present shared quarantine the opportunity to empathize with all who live in forced quarantine-like conditions, some their whole lives, may help us feel less alone and less afraid in our temporary isolation.  This quarantine will pass. There are better days ahead and we can become a better society by considering others and recognizing the similarity in our struggles, exercising our ability to empathize, and learning to compassionately meet the needs of others. 

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