Don’t Assume You Know My Story

On Thursday, I began the set-up process for radiation. Once the technicians had positioned me on the CT scanner table, they called the doctor in. I’d met her just two and a half weeks before, and we had discussed the fact that I was waiting to hear whether chemo was needed before radiation. So, when she asked how I was doing, I said I was great, happy to be there instead of at chemo. I was surprised when she responded that it must be nice to have chemo over with and asked how the last round of treatments had gone.

As I stared back at this woman hovering over me, I suddenly felt like nothing more than another half-naked body lying on the table. I politely reminded her that I did not need chemo and that’s why I was back so soon. But what I wanted to say—to shout, really—was, “Didn’t you read my chart? Did you even really look at me? I’m lying here with a full head of hair. Does it look like I just finished chemo??”

All the other health care professionals I’d encountered up to that point seemed more in touch with who I was, or they asked lots of questions to get to know my history and my current situation. So, this doctor’s pretending to know was particularly disappointing by contrast.

I know physicians see dozens of patients a week. And in the case of this radiation doctor, we’re not setting up a long-term relationship. I will go in for my 33 treatments, have a few follow-ups, and—God willing—never see her again. Still, she has been given full access to my body; I’ve placed my care in her hands and trusted her to play a part in a fairly dramatic chapter of my life. Although I don’t expect any true intimacy between us, I do expect a certain measure of familiarity and a desire to know a little bit about me. There is, after all, a whole person attached to “left breast, invasive ductal carcinoma.”

I suppose what bothers me most, upon reflection, is that this doctor made an assumption about my story. She simply took a few obvious cues about me (I have breast cancer and am beginning radiation), ran them through the filter of her own experience (most women with breast cancer undergo chemo before they get to her for radiation), and applied a story that seemed to fit. But that’s not my story. Makes me wonder: What other assumptions do people make about me based solely on outward cues and the filter of their own experiences? What assumptions do I make about others in the same way? And, if I’m honest, what outward cues do I try to present so people make the assumptions I want them to?

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