I speak to cancer patients almost every day. One of the things that we speak about is their treatment...and I don't only mean their medical treatment but the human treatment they receive at the hands of their oncologists. Now, don't get me wrong. I think there are some wonderful oncologists out there. I have some of them on my advisory board. So I am not talking about all oncologists here, or even a majority of them, but a minority who treat their patients with insensitivity. They are a shame to their profession.
I am thinking in particular about a letter I received the other day from a reader of my weekly cancerdecisions.com newsletter. He wrote about the request that he and his sister made to her oncologist for information about a procedure called chemosensitivity testing. Here is what he wrote:
"Through one of your messages, I came across the idea of chemosensitivity testing. I did more research to understand what exactly it was all about. After that, I thought that it could be great for my sister's cancer. She has cervical. This morning during our appointment with her oncologist, we brought this possibility to the attention to her doctor. We were BLASTED. All the way up and down as if we were committing a crime of cosmic proportions. The doctor was so mad...you can not imagine the scene. Could you be so kind, to consider writing in depth about this? Please, we are alone trying to treat my sister with something better and every time we try something new we are blasted like this. And I know we are not alone. If you elaborate more, many other people can take advantage of our sad experience, and maybe you can give us more elements to fight back. Thanks a million."
Now, rest assured: I do intend to write a special report on the topic of chemosensitivity testing. But the reader could have substituted any number of other topics for this one and the story would have been the same. The doctor in question probably has a chip on his shoulder against complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). He is also probably used to patients being passive and submissive — the way they used to be when he was training to be a doctor. Today, patients have become better informed and that puts demands on him to learn more and to relate to patients in a different way — more as equals than as subservient beings.
Being a cancer doctor is admittedly a hard job. There are so many drugs and drug combinations to learn about and to administer safely and effectively. Add to that having to learn about the many and varied CAM treatments, and it can be daunting. But, that said, there is simply no excuse for this type of arrogance. Blustering is no substitute for knowledge and compassion. So in addition to "sensitivity testing" for tumors we also need "sensitivity training" for oncologists who need to learn to treat their patients with understanding and respect.