Medical Obligations

I’ve been giving much thought to all the accumulated knowledge cancer patients get once we’ve lived in CancerLand a little while. Staying active in social media especially builds that knowledge as we interact with other patients in various stages of treatment. I’m not talking about strictly scientific, medical knowledge; I’m talking about cultural knowledge as well. Not only are patients filled with this knowledge, but so too are medical facilities and fundraising and support organizations.

Or are they?

I’ll tackle this topic in a broader way later, pondering about fundraising organizations in particular, but a couple of things that came into my line of vision recently forced me to confront a single, specific aspect now. At the moment, I find myself frustrated that medical facilities seem to be as adept at spreading misleading information as certain celebrities.

The first twinge I got was perusing Facebook a couple of weeks ago and finding a post from Nancy’s Point. Nancy tells us of a medical facility’s cancer website page that contained an article suggesting cancer patients view their diagnosis as an opportunity for growth. Yeah, that old expectation.

About 3 years into this cancer blogger thing I KNOW there are numerous bloggers who loathe this cancer-is-a-gift-makes-you-a-better-person narrative. Critics of this mindset are so vocal that now I’m seeing little bursts of defensiveness from those who embrace it, which I’ve mentioned a few times here. Not only is there this growing group of disgruntled patients saying, “no, we experienced no such magical growth spurts”, but there are studies and professional reports explaining how such things as forced positivity and battle metaphors are actually damaging, not helping, for many cancer patients. Isn’t this old narrative on its way out? If so, how is it that a major medical center is still shoveling the same old shit?

A couple of days after Nancy’s post I found a local, free magazine lying around, featuring the biggest local hospital’s new Breast Center on the cover. Yes I realize that as a “free” magazine, the featured article is probably just a big press release. I was irked right of the bat because the cover and article featured pictures of professional women employed by the hospital all holding signs with words like “hope”, “courage”, “dignity”. A rant/post about these one word decorative signs I see everywhere is probably coming up. In short for now, I’ll just say that these one word directives are really driving me crazy lately.

Of course I read the article, but the fact the place exists in the first place is quite problematic isn’t it? As we’ve been told MANY times, heart disease is the number one killer of women. Soon February will bring the annual comparisons to breast cancer to drive home this point (Want Attention? Just Say Breast Cancer). So why would a hospital reinforce the false notion that breast cancer is the biggest threat to women by building a center devoted to breasts? And judging by the article (the actual facility is not yet open for business), the center is part of the overall cancer treatment center within the hospital campus. The article morphed into how the cancer center approaches cancer in general. Mostly it was just gushing about how great everyone is, how we are actually getting “cutting edge” technology and professionals here in our rural area (well, I do think this is a good thing). As Gayle Sulik has said numerous times, breast cancer has turned into a proxy for all of women’s health issues. To me, that seems to be the case here.

Now, I must pause here to admit this hospital is where my new oncologist practices. I was treated at a different cancer center, affiliated with a different hospital. I switched a couple a years ago due to insurance issues—no big deal, I don’t have the same attachments to my medical team so many others in the cancer community have. I liked my previous oncologist, the new one is OK too—I hope to see very little of him. My point is that I’m not trying to criticize this new facility at which I am sure to have a few appointments for screening or whatever. It just bothers me that this idea is once again put forth that our breasts are the only health issue we face. Perhaps I am biased—my own grandmother died of heart disease, the number one killer of women. So even though I’m a breast cancer patient (former?), I know I need to keep heart issues in mind too.

I was uncomfortable with the framing story of the article, and it is awful to bring it up, but I will. Again, I pause to say that yes, everyone can “do” cancer their own way. The article began by interviewing a patient who believed she’d “beaten” (yes the article used THAT word) cancer a few years ago, but it came roaring back, so she had to have 3 ribs and much chest muscle removed. That is NOT to say there was cancer in her bones, and the article is careful to avoid any talk of metastasis, whether in regards to this woman or just in general. So I have no idea if she is metastatic or what. The article was scant on medical specifics I so often see on other bloggers’ pages (stage, type of cancer, etc.).

This featured patient claims now to be “cancer free”, and well, many of us in the community were quite frustrated with Rita Wilson’s use of that term. The article continued to quote her using most of the common, clichéd cancer catch phrases—fight, battle, etc. Her quote about cancer NOT being a death sentence was highlighted.  And the piece ended on an upbeat note, as she raved about there being no “woe is me” attitudes in the center. Wow. Good to know this cancer facility upholds the “be strong and positive” narrative. I hope patients displaying a less than spunky spirit are supported too. I don’t belong to any real life support groups at my old cancer treatment center anymore, and I declined joining any offered that are associated with this hospital/cancer center (no time, and it is too far from where I work). I’m glad I do not–sounds like it is the not the safe space a Cancer Curmudgeon would need (I am NOT saying I am all “woe is me”, but my griping is likely labeled that—will address this in another post). But perhaps this lady is just the chosen “face”, whether she is metastatic or not (I assume not). We all know which patients get to go to the podium (Cancer Patient or Blender?).

All this said: am I being unfair to these medical facilities? They are trying to sell their services, and I suppose a cancer patient needs to be “cancer free” now, or they’d be a poor advertisement. But I cannot help but be wary of this new place. Like I said, I’m sure at some point I’ll have a screening or something at this new facility. And my new oncologist is nice, and the patient navigator has been incredibly good to me. Clearly, my breasts will be taken care of, but what about the rest of me? And what about that murky area of metastasis—breast cancer that may go to the rest of me, so what will the breast center do about that?

But the bigger question is this: what is the obligation of the medical industry to potential consumers? Yes, consumers, because if they are selling these old notions of cancer, we are consumers, not patients. No, I’m not naïve and just realizing this—see above/old posts, I’ve talked about this before. Give the people what they want—and if women are buying into breast cancer panic even if other threats are bigger—who cares?! Cater to it, rather than try to educate and correct it, because they’ll spend money because of their worry! And the spread of misinformation perpetuates.

Look, obviously I think breast cancer is an important issue—because well, I live in CancerLand, Town of Breast. But I want accuracies not hype. And I think it is crucial for medical cancer institutions to lead the way in dispelling myths like “cancer is an opportunity for growth”, and “staying positive is the way to beat cancer”. If the medical institutions don’t stick to science, how can I expect culture to follow?  What is the obligation of the medical facilities to the public, and are they meeting it?

Addendum: Just saw a billboard yesterday for a local hospital, with a patient story on it. Complete with patient’s face and her quote “staying positive gets you there”. Yes this was an ad for their cancer center. I went to their website and there is an invitation to “share your story”! Ha! Would they allow anything from a self-professed Cancer Curmudgeon? Doubt it!!

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Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

12 thoughts on “Medical Obligations”

  1. As a marketing professional and more than thirty year resident of cancerland, I will tell you its all hype. Those of us in cancerland can wonder where all the naivete comes from. The answer is that some PR agency hired a bunch of copywriters to paint breast cancer pink and shiny and tell you that if you are ‘brave’ and ‘strong’ you will beat cancer and become ‘cancer-free’ and a ‘cancer survivor’. Breast cancer is an attention getter and so many women are petrified of it that they use it to make them feel better. Never mind what they tell you but there are lots of other ways we could die – heart disease being number one. They grabbed the pink paint brush (because pink is also the ‘girl’ color) and launched PR hype.

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    1. It’s just so frustrating. I mean I recognize the marketing aspect–I think I was just horrified that they would even create a whole center to breast care, as a proxy for all women’s health. That seems more than marketing–it just seems flat out wrong! I mean, it is a hospital doing this!

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  2. “cancer is an opportunity for growth”, “staying positive is the way to beat cancer”, HOGWASH! So what do these uber-positive messages end up doing to the woman who will NOT survive breast cancer? Will she blame herself for not “growing” through the experience? Will she blame herself for not surrounding herself with positivity or choosing the “wrong” breast facility?

    As far as I’m concerned, most, if not all, of these breast facilities have the same equipment, tests, etc… and there are no differences between them, especially when it comes to promising survival. There is NO CURE, only methods to prolong our lives as we try to live everyday with that ugly thought in the back of our minds, wondering when it will come back to some other part/s of our bodies.

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  3. Hi CC,
    Big sigh… I was really irked when I saw that post on such a prestigious medical center’s Facebook page. Not surprised though. I don’t appreciate it when it’s insinuated I should grow from my cancer experience. Your post brings to mind the commercials we see on TV now where marketing these centers is blatantly being done right in our living rooms. Those ads irk me too. The patients (if they are really patients) generally look anything but patient-like, and the words used in the ads are carefully chosen to make the depicted center (and patient outcomes) sound amazing. Hospitals are into marketing big time these days. Sad but true. This is what we get when healthcare is run as a business. But that’s a whole different topic. The ad you mentioned on that magazine cover sounds pretty similar, just in print form. Great point about if the medical centers don’t stick to science (in ads), how can we expect culture to? Thanks for another thought-provoking post. And thanks for the mention too.

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    1. Yes, after I wrote this I did think about those cancer centers that have those commercials on TV–I kind of forget about them, the nearest center is too far away from me! So yes, I could’ve fussed about this issue before, but it was the magazine cover, with those cliched one-word directives on signs that sent me over the edge. As a breast cancer patient, of course I think it’s important–but something about this center just seems wrong. Not to mention, this is further fuel to the fire of patients with other cancers getting sick of the time/money/attention lavished on breast cancer patients. Geez!

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  4. Another post from you I wish everyone would read.

    Your post made me think of something else in relationship to ‘looking the other way.’ I think most patients, if not all, have issues coping with survivorship. It is also true society doesn’t want to hear it. We are expected to be better after cancer and should probably not complain about anything because at least we are still alive. Perhaps some of these medical facilities want to adapt the same culture society has because their main focus should be to treat cancer. So by spreading words related to how cancer should be a lesson of some kind, it is also indirectly telling people, “hey, we can’t help you unless you got cancer”. They try to stay away from the fact that there is damage after cancer, and yes treatments are partially responsible for this, not just the cancer diagnosis. Because treatments is what they are selling, they try to manipulate the way they reach out to their potential patients, because like you said, we are ultimately consumers. The sad part is that I am not sure anyone wants to really deal with the aftermath of cancer. I mean, there have been improvements, and my hospital has been better than what I had ever expected, but most people aren’t lucky to have this level of support. There have also been times when I get dismissed because my hospital only deals with cancer.

    And you brought up an excellent question: “If the medical institutions don’t stick to science, how can I expect culture to follow?”

    Thank you for another great post.

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    1. Thanks Small C, and something you’ve said actually makes me worry more: medical facilities want to adapt to the same culture. See, they should not be adapting–they should be LEADING! Or maybe not into the “culture” of it at all! I guess mostly I just wish that the Women’s breast center were just a women’s health center–with a section devoted to heart health, another to gyno cancers–see what I mean? It’s that proxy thing…

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  5. Don’t get me started. I have to deal with the fallout from this with my patients who can’t even get a straight answer about side effects and collateral damage from some of their clinicians! Never mind the pink-puffery of the cancer center ad campaigns. Oy.

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