If I refuse to see you, it’s not you, it’s me

Through my recent volunteering at the Cancer Centre, I’ve met a remarkable young man, Matthew, who was training as a national-level athlete before brain cancer posed a wee hurdle. He endured gruelling treatment and is now cancer free. Because of his health curve ball, Matthew transferred from kinesiology to nursing. He told me he has especially loved his training on an inpatient oncology unit.

I admire Matthew greatly, but I couldn’t be him, and not just because I’m a national-level klutz. He feels his experience as a cancer patient has primed him to work in oncology. He speaks of his career plan as a calling. I have no doubt he can handle this work and do it well. But I acknowledged to him that I’m a few steps behind him, even though I’m many years older.

When I was completing my psychology training 21 years ago, I turned down the option of time in child oncology. I didn’t think I’d be up to the task emotionally. I have mixed feelings about my decision. Maybe I would have been able to manage the work. Maybe I would have even found my calling. And maybe the exposure to the oncology world would have made my own cancer journey easier.

I always need to consider what I’m up to helping people with at any particular time in my life. For example, if I’m dealing with a recent death of someone close, I’d probably be better not to take on new grieving clients, at least for a while. Were I to do so, my own grief might interfere.

Although I saw many clients with health issues, including cancer, before I got my Cancer Club membership, I’ve been somewhat reluctant to do so since. I’ve had a few recent inquiries from cancerous folk, and I’ve referred these cases elsewhere. I’m aware that were I to meet with Cancer Club clients, my own anxiety might be heightened by their experiences, and so by not seeing them I’m protecting myself. But I’m also aware that my shutting down my practice again due to advancing illness, or my dying on these clients–not in my immediate plans but health is a bit unpredictable–may not be especially therapeutic.

No therapist can ensure she’ll be there tomorrow to do the job, I realize, but my chances of not being there may be a bit higher than yours, assuming you’re not ailing or driving like an idiot or skydiving with a faulty parachute. I don’t want to set a client up for a let down. I also don’t want to create a situation that is anxiety provoking for anyone I’m trying to help, especially if that client is anxious about health. That would make me a hurting professional rather than a helping one.

Maybe someday I too will feel ready to see patients dealing with cancer; just not quite yet. First I need to deal with the fact that I have cancer since I’m a member of a club I didn’t choose to be in. I can, however, choose the work I do now that I’m a member. In the meantime, I trust there are others out there–clinicians like Matthew–who are better equipped than me to support people with cancer. It’s not easy work. They all deserve a gold medal.

Picture of a Vancouver 2010 gold medal

Hurrah to the Gold Medal caregivers!



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