I’m Old. And I Still Have Things To Do

When you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, like I did this year, you get a whole team of people to help you get better. I met my oncology team shortly after receiving the dreaded “you have cancer” call. They were a formidable group, all of whom looked much younger than any of my own children. It was amazing how cheerful and charming they were while they were interviewing me, or while I was interviewing them – I was never sure which was the case.

As an 80-something, I usually rely on impressing a new doctor by what I’ve been told is my “youthful appearance.” But that’s hard to do when you’re wearing a mask and wielding a cane and nobody seems to care about your outfit. But in an odd way, it was a relief to show up in front of the members of my team in this diminished condition, even though I was feeling unusually generic. To compensate for this, I tried desperately to ask intelligent questions. Some of my questions: Could this be a simple lumpectomy? What does a complete mammogram involve? Will there be chemotherapy? How long is the recovery period?

The curious thing is, not one of the eminent doctors on my team asked the questions I thought were what they really needed to know about me.

Armed with my blood work, all sorts of body scans, and a long health history, they finally seemed satisfied that they knew enough to slice me up, stitch me together, and send me back to a life marked by information that appears briefly on the hospital pages. “Patient Gateway” appeared as belonging to “one capable of light housework and administrative work”. I inquired about that characterization and my oncologist – the doctor I saw most often during the long months it took to try to get the tumor shrinking – told me this was just a standard way they had to categorize their patients’ abilities.Later I saw I was described as active and they had included Tai Chi as one of my activities.

My “Patient Gateway” category reminded me of the time, years earlier, when I accompanied an elderly friend to a doctor’s visit. I was surprised and a little embarrassed when she loudly declared that she was a very skilled artist with work in large collections. The moment the doctor put an injection of cortisone on her shoulder – the shoulder that helped control the arm that made the art – and he didn’t respond. It was uncomfortable and more than a little discouraging.

I’m also very tired of hearing that “Age is just a number.” It’s not. It’s a natural development and we don’t become less human the way we do.

I wasn’t about to give in quietly. So I decided exactly what I needed the members of my medical team to know about me. Including that I am still engaged in meaningful work and that I want to be informed about the possible consequences of the planned operation.

My friend’s direct approach got her nowhere, so I tried subtle hints, like “I thought you might want to know I’m writing a series of poems about my cancer.” The astonished look I received at this news kept me silent for the rest of that visit.

One of the author’s artworks, “Weed, Pebble and Rock II.” (Courtesy of Pat Lowery Collins)

It was only when I was confronted with the possible removal of the lymph nodes in my right arm that I dared to reveal that I am also a serious right-handed painter. By this time, the team had already decided to irradiate the nodes instead of removing them, so I can’t claim that I influenced the course of treatment. But would it have been so bad if I had?

Shouldn’t a doctor know about his or her elderly patient’s passions and occupations and that she is capable of much more than light housework, administrative work and Tai Chi?

She may throw pots or sculpt or create beautiful gardens into old age. Maybe she’s volunteering for Habitat for Humanity or has stories to write or people who still depend on her as a friend, mentor, or confidant. Maybe she’s writing a blog. Mine is called ‘Aging and the Creative Process’ and is intended to encourage older people of all kinds to pursue their dreams.

Of course, like other medical professionals, my doctors treat thousands of people every year. Under our current healthcare system, they usually don’t get the time to delve into the intimate aspects of their patients’ lives. What I am proposing is not unreasonable, however.

It’s just that there’s some recognition that an elderly patient’s life is still being lived, that many of us still have goals, and the healing process is better served if our doctors have some idea of ​​what those goals are.

I’m also very tired of hearing that “Age is just a number.” It’s not. It’s a natural development and we don’t become less human the way we do. As we get older, we can identify no less with work that still gives us joy. Those things need to be considered when making decisions about our health.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.

Comments are closed.