Archives for posts with tag: book review

The U.S. has some of the best cancer care in the world and I live in one of the areas known for excellent treatment. However, accessibility to healthcare is not consistent. I was treated and continue to receive follow-up care at the Swedish Cancer Institute, which is part of Swedish Medical Center.

I am really lucky. My physicians, from my internist, to my breast surgeon, to my medical oncologist, are all top notch. The staff at my cancer center are excellent. Although hospitals are no place to rest, the care I received at the hospital during the four surgeries I had there, was exemplary whether during the day or in the middle of the night. My healthcare providers communicated with one another. I had access to my healthcare record online but I was not responsible for managing the sharing of those records. Last, but not least, everyone I interacted with was friendly and polite, with little exception.

Being cared for by competent and professional people within a functional healthcare system was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life in terms of feelings cared for. I am a caretaker. I started babysitting when I was 10 years old, I am a mother and a wife. I am a healthcare provider.

I was active in my healthcare but I had a lot of trust in my physicians and followed all of their recommendations. It was always made clear to me that my physicians were making recommendations but that the ultimate decisions were mine to make. They were clear, however, about the potential pros and cons of each treatment option, which is part of a healthcare providers job as well as of their legal and ethical responsibility to patients.

Cancer treatment is exhausting. Although I.V. chemotherapy and radiation were not recommended for me, my treatment was still taxing. The main part of my treatment took over two years, which involved nine surgeries, two years of Lupron shots, ongoing Tamoxifen treatment, countless blood draws, scans, pathology reports, and anywhere from 3-5 doctors’ appointments per week. Although I took off time to recuperate from surgeries, I worked throughout that time and had family responsibilities, most notable helping rear a teen daughter who was having one Hell of a tough time with life.

Because I had excellent care, I was able to relax at times and let my caregivers take care of me. I could lie in the ocean and float like a jellyfish, trusting that the surf would take me where I needed to go. I don’t recommend the “jellyfish method” as a general way of getting through medical treatments.

Exhibit A. The surf took this jellyfish to land.  A jellyfish can survive out of the water for less than an hour. They can’t swim or move themselves. It takes well longer than an hour for the tide to come back in to where the jellyfish have been stranded.

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My friend, Beth Gainer, MA, had a very different cancer treatment experience. Acting like a jellyfish even for brief periods could have threatened her physical well-being and most certainly damaged her psychological health. I’ve been reading Beth’s blog, Calling the Shots, for a number of years now. She has bravely waded through rough waters inhabited with unbelievably rude physicians and unhelpful administrative staff. Fortunately, she was able to secure some physicians who, as she says, she “loves”. For this, I am very grateful but I am angry and sad about her other experiences. Cancer is hard enough!

The path to good care was not easy or smooth for Beth. At times, advocating for care in a dysfunctional system was downright ugly. But she did it! Using her experiences as a guide, Beth has written, Calling the Shots in Your Medical Care. This short book contains practical tips for assessing the quality of your healthcare providers, suggestions for speaking up, and finally, strategies for being “a bad patient”, one who speaks up and forcefully, when necessary.

Just as there is no one way to navigate through cancer or any other serious illness, there is no one way to navigate through your healthcare. But if you find that you have lots to say and don’t feel empowered to say it, this is the book for you. Beth found her voice in her cancer treatment. You can, too.

Several years ago, I observed a primary grade classroom in which one of my patients was a student. This student was exceptionally bright; however, he was not exceptionally fast with new information. It took him the whole school day to process the information. When his teacher called on him, this student would have a blank look on his face or say something off topic. By the time he got home, though, he told his parents about all of the things he had learned, with great enthusiasm.

The class this student was in was for intellectually gifted students with very high levels of academic achievement. He had tested into the program. I attended a meeting during which his teacher restated what he had previously told the parents, which is that he “did not see” this boy’s giftedness. I knew this child well and had done his testing. Based on the findings of the testing, the fact that it took him more time to consolidate information into long-term memory was expected. This boy in particular, had difficulty expressing what he had just learned. After a few hours to digest the information, he could do it and the understanding he demonstrated was extremely high. I told his teacher this. The teacher changed his tact and complained that he had “no way of measuring” this child’s giftedness.

The implication was that this child did not belong in the program. I wish that during the meeting, I had learned that this teacher only evaluated his student’s based on their performance in class. He DID NOT look at the students’ homework. If I’d known about this, I would have said, “Hey, I know how you can measure his learning. You could grade his homework!”

This teacher isn’t a bad teacher or even a dolt. I have visited his classroom a few times. He is one of the most impressive teachers I have ever seen. He has won a national teaching award. He is extremely entertaining in the classroom. He explains sophisticated concepts in a highly skilled manner. When he reads a story to the classroom, he does all of the character voices like a very good actor. He is extremely funny. He moves fast and asks the students lots of questions.

He is an amazing teacher and I have known students who have done extremely well in his class. But he didn’t look at or grade homework. He had one way of measuring student success. He had one way of teaching. He wasn’t going to budge. If your brain did not fit his instruction, you didn’t belong in the gifted program even if you qualified to be there according to the same criteria used for other students there.

I have the wonderful fortune of knowing some exemplary teachers both in my professional and personal lives. I suspect they may not be the performer that the award winning teacher in their classroom. (After all, said teacher also had professional actor and improvisational comedian in his resume.) What these teachers do have, however, is an exemplary ability to teach that also includes responding to the variety of learning needs in a classroom. This is called differentiated instruction.

In other words, teaching is not one sized fits all. Not surprisingly, Nancy Stordahl, author of Cancer Was Not a Gift and It Didn’t Make Me a Better Person, is a teacher and the daughter of a teacher. She is also the author of the breast cancer blog, Nancy’s Point. One of Nancy’s main messages conveyed in her blog is that there is no one-sized-fits-all way to be a breast cancer patient or breast cancer survivor. Dealing with cancer is no doubt a learning experience as all major life experiences are. We all learn our own way and not necessarily while decked out in pink feathered boas.

Being a breast cancer blogger myself, I soon found myself reading Nancy’s excellent blog. I have also previously read her book, Getting Past the Fear: A Guide to Help You Mentally Prepare for Chemotherapy. I didn’t have chemotherapy myself but impressed with Nancy’s practical, instructional, and well-researched blog, I bought the book for my Kindle and read it. Nancy has a way of explaining things in a very organized, straight-forward manner without a lot of flowery touches. And despite the lack of flowery touches, she also conveys a reassuring level of emotional support and empathy. Nancy has a way of being direct, concise, and practical without being cold. How does she do this?

The new book also has the tone of our no-nonsense Nancy with extra layers. This book is a memoir and in reading it, I learned more about Nancy. I have a personal relationship with Nancy as a fellow member of the blogging community. Nancy has always impressed me as being a very solid person who is very close to her family. Her breast cancer advocacy is intensely fueled by her love for her mother, who died from metastatic breast cancer just two before Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer herself.  Nancy’s ties to her family is a major theme of her book. Her love of her parents, husband, and children are apparent in her writing, which is respectful of her own as well as her family’s privacy. Nancy also describes solid ties to place, namely the U.S. Midwest, especially in her descriptions of the natural places that give her peace and are also places associated with extended family gatherings.

Nancy’s writing is an excellent example of the dance we all try to do in our experiences of loss. We balance the need for commonality and connection with others with our need to for individuality, our need to maintain the reality that our losses do not define our entire being. Nancy is not a black and white thinker. She does not see her life as all good or all bad. Likewise, Nancy does not attribute everything good or everything bad in her life to her experience with cancer.

It is simple to say that life is gray but harder live that way. If you want to read about someone who has spent the last several years navigating the uncertainties of life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, from a point of honesty, empathy, and respect, I think you will very much appreciate Nancy’s book.

Art, Science, Heart ❥

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Heart Sisters

For women living with heart disease

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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