When I empathized with my older patient about the hardships of colon cancer, she began sharing many of the good things in her life, like still being able to work.
“When I found I had colon cancer, I thought that was it. I threw away things, gave away things, updated my will, and found another home for my dog. I have bad hips, bad knees, a bad back, what’s the use of this body? When I was taken to surgery, I wished I would die on the table.” My 88-year-old patient spoke angrily and then choked up in tears.
I sat quietly looking at her lips with brown lipstick and funky glasses with bright blue leopard print. I instantly connected with her style and felt her heart break. We sat in silence together for a few seconds as she took out her packet of tissues from her Gucci handbag.
“Well, you didn’t die, and I’m delighted to see you today on this sunny afternoon,” I responded as the spring sun streamed through the window. “What’s going well?” I gently asked.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing.” She paused. “Well, that’s not true, I take it back. I work from home and the internet worked this morning.” We both smiled as she shared the things going well amid her awareness of an aging body, living with cancer, contributing to a society that doesn’t validate or appreciate living as an older disabled human being.
When listening to a patient’s fear about aging and disability, I suggest that we hold the space with tenderness and attentively. When I do that, it brings joy in medicine, and the ability to appreciate things just the way they are.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.