Ordinary people

Deze blog schreef ik voor de website van Tedx Maastricht.

I used to work as a nurse at the oncology ward. Since most of my patients suffered from metastatic cancer, healing was no longer an option. Most people came for chemotherapy to slow down the disease. Some participated in a drug study. There were also quite a few patients who were admitted with acute pain, constipation or other severe malaise.

The atmosphere on the ward, however, was surprisingly good. It happened regularly that patients, when their stay came to an end, were reluctant to face the outside world again. I came to understand that attitude.    

For most patients the oncology ward is a place they know well. They’ve been there before and they’ll probably return there in time. The doctors and nurses are familiar, and patients feel safe in their care. Perhaps the ward even feels a bit like home because the outside world has changed.

Cancer comes with a stigma. Because we culturally associate the disease with death, it alters relationships dramatically. Friends and relatives usually find it very hard to deal with the new situation. A female patient, terminally ill, told me that her best friend bursts into tears every time they see each other. She was so through with that.  She just wanted to laugh and have fun like they used to.  Another patient, who suffered from lung carcinoma, told me that his visitors always start a conversation with the remark that he looks good. Probably meant well, but there was no way for him to tell about his constant nausea, and how scared he was of dying. He felt very lonely among his relatives.

The most painful thing that can happen to patients is the end of a friendship. It grieves me to say it’s actually quite common.  Some people are not able to deal with a severely sick friend or relative. They have no idea how to act or what to say, and therefore unconsciously decide to avoid confrontation. 

The good atmosphere on the oncology ward can partly be explained by these social dramas. On the ward, everybody has metastatic cancer. Therefore, patients can just be themselves, despite the stigmatised disease. They take off their wigs. They talk about their feelings and the alienating experience of being terminally ill with each other and the staff.  On the ward, they are the ordinary. A roll that no longer exists in the outside world.