Oct 232015

After my tumor removal surgery and before I found my way to my wonderful doctor’s alternative cancer program, I did three weeks of short-course radiation. To get the radiation, I had to visit the hospital’s cancer center. It was one of the most traumatic parts of my experience.

Walking through those doors — just the act of going in there — made me feel sick. I felt labeled. Stigmatized. It might have been irrational, but if I could have just gone to the regular hospital, to get treated there like regular people do, I’d have felt a lot better about the whole situation. Having to go to a special building, with giant letters on it proclaiming that everyone in there had cancer, felt invasive. It felt as emotionally invasive as surgery was physically invasive.

Intangible Costs of Labeling Patients

Why this deep aversion?

In a normal hospital, people are sick but in all sorts of different ways. Most of them are expected to recover. Also, no one knows why you in particular are there, so you have some semblance of privacy.

In a cancer hospital, everyone knows why you are there, and there’s an aura of pity, suffering and despair that’s hard to explain or escape. It’s an invisible mental pressure that takes a toll.

One of the reasons I didn’t mind office visits with my surgeon and oncologist was that they WEREN’T based out of the cancer center. I loved the relative anonymity and normality of entering their offices. (Important Note: The PRIMARY reason I chose my surgeon and oncologist was that they were the best in their field. Even if they had been based out of the cancer center, I would have chosen them. I’m just extremely glad they were elsewhere.)

No such luck with the radiation oncologist. I had to visit the cancer center every day for weeks. I felt like I was wearing a scarlet letter C.

Lingering Trauma

To this day, when I walk past the cancer center, I cross the street. I try never to go near it. I feel traumatized by the idea that people might associate me with such sickness when I’ve worked so hard to get healthy. I feel exposed and stressed near there, like every nerve ending is raw and electrified. It’s all in my head, but my feelings are quite real.

My oncologist recently moved into the cancer center, and I’m actually putting off my appointment. I hate admitting that my distaste for re-entering that building is a major factor. But it is.

What Could We Do?

It would help a lot if cancer centers were more generically named. Maybe just tagged with a donor’s name, like, “The Smith Center.” Or a doctor’s name, like the Block Center in Illinois run by Dr. Keith Block. Those names don’t trigger stress and fear. They don’t label the people who walk through the doors. They allow some preservation of anonymity and therefore dignity, especially in a city where throngs of people stream past the entrance every day.

Re-naming cancer centers is something people without cancer might never even think about, because they have no idea it could be a problem. I’m writing this to tell you: It’s a problem, at least for me, and I suspect for some other patients, too. In a population that often develops PTSD as a result of treatment, one easy change could have significant benefit to patients’ well-being during and after treatment.

We know we have cancer. Don’t tell the world, too.