I grew up in a bacon-loving family. When I was seventeen, some scientist discovered a connection between bacon and cancer. I immediately announced I would no longer eat bacon. My dad replied, “You think you are not going to die because you stop eating bacon? No one gets out of this life alive. Eat the bacon.”
Less than a year after that conversation, a friend was killed in Vietnam. At Lonnie’s funeral, I recalled my dad’s words and understood that not only do we not get out of this life alive, but some die very young.
I decided to eat bacon—in moderation.
My dad’s pragmatism and Lonnie’s death helped me develop a realistic view toward life and death. The cancer caregivers workshop I attended last month reminded me of my Dad’s admonition that “no one gets out of this life alive.” It also reminded me of the oncologist who treated Jim.
Jim’s oncologist was focused on what was best for Jim’s body—new treatments, a stay in the hospital, etc. Keeping Jim’s body alive was his priority, and he was frustrated when we would not do what he wanted. More than once, he warned that he would not continue to treat Jim if we did not go along with his directives.
He taught me the lesson that doctors treat.
Jim and I were more focused on Jim’s spirit. We knew Jim’s body was going to die—but that his spirit would live on. Our stance was that we are spirits inhabiting bodies rather than bodies that have spirits. We were more concerned that Jim’s spirit be at peace than keeping his body alive longer.
It was as if we were speaking two different languages. His oncologist could not understand why we would not try every possible treatment to keep Jim’s body alive—as if he did not know that Jim’s death was imminent.
The cancer caregivers workshop consisted of presentations followed by small group sessions. The presentations were given by doctors and other medical professionals who introduced a variety of mindfulness practices—breathing, movement, guided imagery, etc.—all within a medical context.
After working in adult education for ten years, I understand that adults learn best when instruction is contextualized. So, for medical people to understand new material, it is best to present it within a medical framework.I had lunch one day with a young doctor. He asked about my work and what I had learned from people facing cancer. I told him that I repeatedly hear that people don’t want to be told what they should, ought to or need to do. “I do that all the time,” he said. “And your patients probably don’t like it,” I replied. He looked stunned.
Perhaps it is time to reform medical training so that doctors and patients can speak the same language and be partners in care. Working together we can help people live healthier, fuller lives—while still understanding that no one gets out of this life alive.