Dr. Jeff Kane: The tale and the teller
Shelley first attended our cancer support group just a day after she was diagnosed. When another participant gently asked her if there was anything she’d like to say, she only cried.
In the next weekly meeting, she muttered that she was having a hard time and didn’t want to talk more about it.
In her third meeting, Shelley said, “Cancer’s completely disrupted my life, and my family’s, too. It’s all I think about. I don’t even know how to think about it. It’s like I’ve lost my mind.”
Over ensuing months, Shelley extended her story. Every time she told it, she added news and changed it a bit by adding new features and deleting older, less relevant ones.
“No wonder I felt disoriented,” she said. “There was nothing wrong with me. It’s just that cancer makes everything different. I wasn’t sure who to tell or what to say. I was shocked at my reluctance to accept help. Some friends avoided me and others didn’t understand what I was going through. I’m learning to be assertive with medical people to get what I need.”
Notice how Shelley’s story evolved. She began by relating that news of her diagnosis tore her perspectives, habits, and plans into so much confetti. She felt like she’d landed in an alien country. By listening to her own story, she restored her sense of control by learning how she needed to cope. Now, when speaking, she routinely asks herself, “Do I really mean that? Is this the way I want to describe this?” Her story became an opportunity to develop healthier navigation.
Almost all social discourse, including illness discussions, consists of saying some version of, “Here’s who I am and here’s what I make of the world.” We do this because more than food, shelter, money, health, and even, possibly, survival, we want to be seen and heard, noticed, witnessed, appreciated, valued and loved.
In our distracted, rushed culture, though, it’s often easier to suppress our personal narratives and vulnerabilities beneath superficial conversation. How many times, reading a friend’s obituary, have you learned twice as much about them as when they were alive?
Shelley knows she can tell her story however she likes — as an unmitigated tragedy, a challenge, an opportunity to amend any habit or perspective. Illness or no, that’s so for all of us. We don’t just tell the story; we actually are the story.
Jeff Kane is a physician and writer in Nevada City.
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Western Sierra Medical Clinic has announced that Family Nurse Practitioner Lora Lee Grutkowski has retired from employment with the nonprofit health center effective March 12.