The Human Side of Treatment

Bob Riter
Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes
Last Modified: May 31, 2010

Bob and Queenie
Bob and Queenie

Cancer treatment often involves operating rooms, chemotherapy protocols, and high tech radiation therapy equipment. All of which have reduced cancer deaths and improved the lives of those who have been diagnosed with the disease.

My job - and it's a great job – is talking with people being treated for cancer. What they comment on is not the equipment or the science involved in their care. Rather, they focus on the quality of the human interaction they have with their caregivers.

Those of us receiving cancer treatment want to connect on a human level with our doctors, nurses, and therapists. We don't need to be friends, but we want to sense that we're all in this together.

With cancer, this begins with the initial diagnosis. Telling someone they have cancer is never a routine conversation.

Many people I've talked with can describe the expression on their doctor's face when the doctor says, "You have cancer." It's one of those frozen-in-time moments. Compassion is recognized and remembered.

Other moments stay with you. I remember being hooked-up to an IV and watching those chemo drugs drip in for the first time. I was borderline terrified. Thankfully, I had a wonderful chemo nurse who was supportive, kind, and professional. That made the difference.

And every staff person who works in a health care setting has the capacity to affect the quality of care. I recently stopped by a doctor's office to drop off some material. The receptionist was busy on the phone and didn't bother to recognize my presence even though I was standing in front of her for several minutes. All she had to do was to smile or wave or give some indication that she recognized that I was a person and that she would be with me in a moment. Instead, she ignored me. That unwelcoming first impression can't be erased.

I've also experienced some incredible kindnesses from the front office staff in medical practices. Many go out of their way to be both supportive and comforting. Although they don't directly treat your cancer, their kindness can be what you remember on the drive home.

As important as human interaction is in any medical encounter, it's especially important for those with cancer. Cancer patients are raw - they're scared and their emotions are close to the surface. Every kindness from a medical professional is savored and every miscommunication causes pain.

I encourage patients to speak up and thank their doctors, nurses, therapists, and office staff when they sense genuine kindness and compassion. If you're working with cancer patients, you aren't allowed to have a bad day because your patients are almost always having a worse day. It's not an easy job and we should acknowledge when it's done in a way that maintains and evens enhances our sense of humanity.

Bob is the Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appear regularly in the Ithaca Journal. He can be reached at

Reprinted with Permission of the Ithaca Journal
Original Publication Date: September 6, 2007