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Practicing Restraint In A No-Empathy Zone: At The Cancer Surgeon’s Office With My Son

Cathy Corman
Guest Contributor

I carry a genetic mutation increasing my risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. My children have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mutation. My 22-year-old son recently noticed a breast lump and asked me to join him when he met with a surgical oncologist to be evaluated.

The surgeon performed a skillful physical exam but provided neither effective risk assessment nor empathetic counsel. Afterward, I sent an email to friends briefly explaining what had gone wrong during the appointment. “We want to know how you managed not to hit him,” they asked. I did it by practicing restraint: slowly counting backwards from 10 and taking very deep breaths.

Here’s my countdown:

10. I did not correct the icy-blue-eyed surgeon with steel-grey hair and steady hands — 50? 60? — when he dissuaded my son from pursuing genetic testing. The surgeon had shaken my son’s hand, looked him in the eye, and palpated my son’s slender, muscular chest, identifying the small lump under my son’s left nipple. A positive finding of a mutation, the surgeon said, adjusting the top of his surgical scrubs, could expose my son to discrimination in the workplace and in obtaining health insurance. That is, I did not say, “The scenario you describe is illegal in this country.” As of March 23, 2010, with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), if anyone were to attempt to discriminate against this young man in the workplace or in the process of applying for health insurance because of a positive finding for a genetic mutation (a pre-existing condition), this person would be subject to a massive lawsuit.

Cathy Corman (Courtesy)

Cathy Corman (Courtesy)

9. When this surgeon used the word “anxiety” for the eighth time to a) describe my son and myself and b) provide his vision of a course of action, I did not refer this man to Leslie Jamison’s collection of essays, “The Empathy Exams.”  “Empathy,” writes Jamison, “isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard — it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see…”

8.  I did not bring up this statistic: Though men make up only 1 percent of breast cancer diagnoses annually in the U.S., they may be up to 25 percent likelier than women to die from the disease, probably because of lack of awareness and late detection. Nor did I mention that generally male breast cancer presents with a detectable lump and is almost always linked to radiation exposure, unusually high levels of estrogen or a genetic mutation. Surely the surgeon knew these statistics? But my son did not. And I did not want to scare him.

7. I said nothing to this surgeon’s response to my son’s question, “But wouldn’t it be relevant to know if I carry the mutation?” His answer: No, you know you have a family history of breast cancer.

6. I said nothing when this surgeon dodged my son’s question: “If my grandfather didn’t have the mutation,” my son wanted to know, “wouldn’t he not have had breast cancer? And wouldn’t it be important for me to know if I carry the mutation, too, to assess my risk?” The surgeon’s reply: The only way you’ll know if you have cancer is to have the lump removed. The surgeon’s answer, while true, sidestepped the elephant in the room: whether my son carries a mutation elevating his risk of breast cancer.

5. When this surgeon ridiculed an actress whose name he could not remember for publicly disclosing her status as a mutation carrier and for undergoing prophylactic mastectomies, I offered him the actress’s name. Continue reading