At the mercy of the tide

Both as surgeon and as a patient I have sat at my desk going through the envelopes or emails of biopsy results. No matter who it is, a chill comes over me when reading bad results. Almost half a decade later, the memory of that comes back to haunt me… At the very mention of the “C” word we start speaking in hushed tones. For the record, I am well aware of the devastation of those few words, when first uttered. When the genie is out of the bottle it cannot be stuffed back in. Sitting opposite couples where the woman has been diagnosed is a surreal experience. In that moment stripped from material needs, without the protection of status, the seconds after the news redefines their relationship. I watched this play out, not only at the time of diagnosis, but even long after when the follow-ups taper away.

I remember the moment I got a call from the pathologist telling me that my mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer, some fifteen years ago. After me going cold and hot, I realised I couldn’t tell anybody at that moment, as we were on our way to a dear friend’s wedding. Knowing that cancer is not a real point of diagnosis, but a single frame in a movie, without a time reference to indicate where we were, I could wait for better timing. By the time I told my mom, I had rallied the resources, arranged the bevy tests and made appointments. I told her and my dad. Then I went into doctor mode. Explaining the statistics, I gave them a reasonable idea of the events over the immediate, near and long term from diagnosis from years later. I was doing this to help them to come to terms with the immense shock; I was also shielding myself by offering options and support in a field I was an expert.

If the man in your world were faced with this, you would recognise the symptoms. The Y chromosome leaps to the fore. Mechanically we are hardwired to capture a fair maiden’s heart, slay dragons and create some version of a family. When the medical world takes over, the emotional side is put aside as we hear bugle call to arms. We start with the rational, seeking to understand this unseen foe. We ask quasi-scientific questions, and if there are none, we vow to find them. In the face of no dragon to slay or towers to climb our software is frozen. The stress of the disease, the additional emotional load, the primal need to care for their women and the juggling of the financial burden often leads us to the emotional equivalent of a computer’s blue screen of doom.

For us sitting in a waiting room, spending time in the chemo suite and the perceived patronising attitude from doctors highlights our helplessness. Suddenly none of our achievements at golf; the trophy from the better business organisations and bank account matter anymore, the ability to steer our family has lost it rudder. We feel at the mercy of the tide.

The reason could be the way men and women deal with life. Intuitively long before it was proven, we all grasp the different approaches. Women are better in expressing their emotions and perceiving the emotions, we men are better at compartmentalising emotions focusing on each challenge. When René Descartes formulated his philosophy, he summed it up in this sentence, “I think, therefore I am.” Without being disrespectful to women could another similar short saying women feel, therefore they are.

We feel as deeply as women do, but the sharing mechanism is different. We are unable to deal with one part spilling over. We ring fence our feelings, thinking that will protect our loved ones and ourselves. It would be bad form to shed a tear when the hurt overwhelms us.

If you are reading this, I wish I could make the process better – I can’t. What I can tell you is what I did. I bottled it up. I became terse, less able to communicate and irascible. By the sixth day I was ready to explode. My sister told me to speak to a friend of ours, Karen, who was a confidant. She taught me that it was good to share my feelings, but only if I was feeling safe. Little by little, like a child with a helium balloon, I breathed in the gas. In the beginning I had control over how I sounded. Sometimes I quacked like Donald Duck, later my voice became one like a chipmunk song, but eventually I lost the shrill tone and my voice and my mood returned to normal. What I know is the following; letting it out was hard in the beginning, what was worse was the pressure of containing my emotions in. In the words of Disney’s Snow Queen Elsa, “Let it go…”

Till next time. 


Rev. Doctor Gereth Edwards was a practicing plastic surgeon, co-founder of the Netcare Milpark Hospital - Breast Care Centre of Excellence and the Breast Health Foundation. He then refocused his life and qualified as a minister. He writes from both a scientific and humanities view.

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