Yesterday, a wise and insightful friend posted this on my Facebook page in response to my last blog post, Good News, Strange Waters.
…The shedding of identity and expectations as a burden to your fIght for survival, the fighting for survival while lost at sea. Exausted. We people must seem so small and distant, little specks on a shore you can’t see. I can only imagine…
— Marika Reinke (She blogs at https://marikareinke.com/)
Her comment made me realize that I do not see any of you as small, distant, on the shores far away from me. You don’t even exist in this emotional inner landscape I carry with my cancer. Sometimes, by following the blogs of other stage IV breast cancer survivors, I get a glimpse of somebody off in the distance, navigating waters similar to mine. But so far I have yet to meet anyone, even a peer stage IV survivor, who is in the exact same emotional space at the same time.
My Stage IV emotional landscape never leaves me. But I also live, simultaneously, in many other emotional worlds: mom, spouse, friend, sister, colleague, patient, cousin, neice — and even though both of my parents have now died, daughter. And while these emotional worlds can rupture into each other, a lot of good therapy has helped me disentangle them a bit.
Still, just as I am always a mother (even at girls’ weekend!), I am always a stage IV cancer survivor.
You would think that driving to the hospital for appointments with my oncologist, scans and treatments would pull this emotional cancer world into the forefront, shake it up like a minuature snow globe.
At the beginning of my stage IV journey, patient-emotion-world and stage IV-survivor-emotion-world were one and the same. But there is something magical about the caregivers at Swedish Cancer Institute in Issaquah. As a team, as an entire staff, they were able to hold space for me to create a patient-space as a safe space, rather than a space that was synonmous with my stage-IV emotional space, or worse, a space that was filled with so much social-emotional garbage that big emotional ruptures would be almost unavoidable.
OK. Examples of social-emotional-garbage spaces I’ve encountered at other medical institutions.
The medical provider, days after I discovered I had breast cancer and before I was even staged yet, who told me she spent all evening holding her children and crying for me.
The medical provider prepping me for surgery who tells me she can’t stand patients with tattoos who complain about pain and that she really loves X Seahawk’s star because of what a great Christian he is.
The medical staff who joke at a colleague’s expense behind his back, mocking, in this case, his height.
The radiation oncologist who asks “How did this happen to YOU? You did everything “right”! The medical assistant who assures me my outlook will be better than other people’s outlook because I’m so positive.
The list is long. And the thing that stands out for me is that these are the behaviors we indulge in when we are consciously or unconsciously separating ourselves from someone else’s situation. We placing ourselves up a bit on the pecking order or declaring our own place safer, better than the situation of the person we’re facing.
Now, my teenager will be the first to let you know that I am clearly among the sinners, here. And I will be the first to assure you that she’s right. And I guess it is because I do personally know how easy it is to practice social-emotional-garbage that I am so fascinated and impressed by people, especially groups of people, who do not.
There’s been a lot written on holding space. I can’t remember if I first saw this article through a post by Kim Pollock or whether it was one of the new stage IV bloggers (Dikla Benzeevi, maybe?) I met at the Novartis Advanced Breast Cancer Bloggin Summit this year.
Here is what it comes down to, for me, today.
The medical staff at Swedish Cancer Institute in Issaquah center themselves in love and vulnerability.
Here’s an example.
One day, sitting in my chemo chair and enjoying the warm sunlight, I overheard another patient getting upset about how long his treatment was taking. By his voice and, really, his entitled attitude, I pictured him as a White man, probably at least 70 years old.
He was letting it rip. Complaining loudly about service, staff and delays. He yelled out that he’d HAD IT and he WAS LEAVING. He was sick of being there.
The first nurse I heard approach him leaned into him with concern and care.
“Yes. It’s been a long day.”
Now it’s not the words the staff were using that did the work. It was what you could feel in those words. It was a warm stand of support. There was nothing patronizing. Nothing belittling. No “now now” tone.
And immediately this nurse was joined by other nurses. And they held the same, supportive tone.
“Of course. You have the right to leave any time you want.”
“Your doctor wants you to stay here because he wants to ensure your safety. ”
“You are free to do what you want to do.”
“It’s been a long day. You’re right.”
Now, you could say exactly these same phrases and create a completely different environment. It’s the heart, not the words here that works.
Now I couldn’t see any of this. But when I listened to these nurses speaking, I could see them in my mind’s eye, standing in a calm, caring circle around this man. Calm acceptance.
No judgment. No irritability. No defensiveness.
You could feel the love surrounding this grumpy, frustrated…and probably scared man.
These nurses, medical assistants, social workers, radiology technicians and doctors pretty much live in this authentic space when they are here with us, the patients.
We chat about spouses. We tell stories about our children. We talk about vacations and news stories. But in the sharing of our lives, the focus is always on growth, on vulnerability, on love.
There’s a lot of quiet joy, even in our shared insecurities, as we laugh about the messes we create in our private lives.
How do they do this? Is it a training? A list of do’s and don’ts? A hiring practice and a particularly insightful hiring authority?
What role does Sue’s amazing retreat at her cabin play in keeping that heartsong alive? What makes those busy nurses decide to take unpaid time away from their families in order to come together at these retreats?
Of course the diversity the staff must also contribute. There are enough different ways to walk the earth represented there (race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and more) that a group-think sense of “we know better” has a harder time grabbing hold.
I like to think it’s a heartsong of strength in humility, of pride in growth over individual accomplishment and a talent for listening to understand. I like to think that once this heartsong is created and moved into the center of the professional culture, it begins to simply descend upon new hires and envelope them.
I’ve often thought of safe spaces like Bellevue College’s LGBTQ Center as simply refuges from the microaggressions and outright hostility students can encounter outside of those doors. Swedish Cancer Institute has helped me realized that safe spaces are where we can trust that the people we meet will hold space us and whatever emotional worlds we bring in with us.
Whatever it is that they do to create this space at Swedish Cancer Institute in Issaquah, I see it. I am grateful. The storms of my inner stage IV world can splash on hard days and on easy days, the calm water can spread out onto the warm sands of their support.