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Grateful After Breast Cancer: The Selfish Doctor

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I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2015. I share my learning from the illness that jolted me back on track to a new life. This is my second posting.

The oncology center at Karolinska, Söder Sjukhuset in Stockholm is located in the basement. I was scheduled for the first radiation therapy after my two surgeries in the left breast. The hospital is huge. Even finding the correct elevator requires a clear mind. There is no natural daylight and through the open doors along the very long corridor, I spotted loads of towels, lines of beds on wheels and various medical equipment.
- I am in a factory,
I thought,
- and I am a vital part of this factory. They are here to heal me.

I felt a swoosh of gratefulness. I was grateful to science, to progress, to the Swedish health care system, for having this huge factory at my disposal. But as a cancer patient in emotional turmoil, the factory analogy also felt harsh. I needed human recognition, not only efficiency.

The health personnel that I encountered along my journey were mostly warm, welcoming and caring. My son's girl friend Marie, who is studying to become a nurse, have been taught to leave her personal life at home when interacting with patients. I met one doctor who was unaware of that. I am grateful it was only one.

13 days after my first surgery, I was back in the operation suite to remove more cancer. The Swedish summer holiday had just started. The temporary summer procedures left the nurses fumbling and I was waiting in a huge room filled with empty beds, not knowing what would happen next. I felt forlorn and was overwhelmed by loneliness. The considerate care I experienced during the first surgery was a stark contrast.

The anesthetic doctor arrived at last. We waited to be allowed into the operation theatre.
- Oh, it was so wonderful to be on the west coast,
Dr Josephine said and smiled. She was tanned and looked very healthy.
- I just love those lazy days with my parents by the sea. I had to return to work, but I will soon have another three weeks off.

I could sense the warm summer breeze, I imagined the family closeness and I smelled the barbeque. Her words created a movie of longing in my mind. I longed for all that I missed out on this summer, and most of all, I longed to be away from the hallway where I was standing in my oversized blue hospital gown with a green plastic hat on my head.

With tears in my eyes, I mumbled how I was supposed to be in Italy at a wedding right now. It was impossible to keep my self-pity abbey.

This was one incident in many meetings with excellent health care staff. But yet, it stays in my memory. Marie is so right. As a patient, I was focusing on what was ahead; being put to sleep, the surgery. I hoped they would remove all the cancer this time. I could not rejoice in Dr Josephine's private happiness. It interfered strongly with my concentration.

We all have such immense power over our surroundings. What we say and do towards other people affects them. When we are sick and vulnerable, it is difficult to fend off comments and energies that hurt us.

Walking along the endless corridors on a later check-up at the same hospital, an older man loudly proclaimed:
- WOW! You are so beautiful!
- Indeed!
his buddy echoed.

I felt wonderful and turned to smile and thank them. I try to remember this experience and to forget Dr Josephine's summer holiday.