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John McCain and Conversations About Serious Illnesses

What we can Learn From John McCain’s Illness

By Kendra Deja, LCSW, MSN, GNP-BC, ACHPN – Manager, Clinical Curriculum for the Institute

When John McCain was diagnosed with a serious brain cancer last week, it produced an outpouring of emotion from leaders and laypeople all over the world. Many of his colleagues shared messages of support for his strength of character and many cancer survivors shared messages of encouragement for the journey ahead. For those of us health care professionals working in palliative care, the conversation sparked a familiar understanding about the power of words to help and to heal when used with purpose and intention.

“Some people resort to saying nothing, because they don’t know what to say, or fear saying the wrong thing.”

John McCain’s cancer diagnosis prompted a conversation in the national consciousness about what to say to a person who is diagnosed with a new and serious illness. During this sensitive and often-disorienting time, the power of words becomes both daunting and important. Many people struggle to know what to say to the person who is facing the enormity of their own mortality. Some people resort to saying nothing, because they don’t know what to say, or fear saying the wrong thing.

Palliative Care is not About “The Battle”

Many people, as this CNN opinion piece highlights, resort to a language of pitting cancer or other serious illness treatment into a war, battle, or fight metaphor. As this article explains, for the person with cancer or another serious illness, using war or fight language to describe cancer treatment becomes difficult to comprehend because it implies that the person is actually at war with themselves and their own body. While some patients may find the battle language inspiring and motivating, for others, it creates person/illness/body conflict that can complicate coping instead of inspiring resilience.

Palliative Care – Following the Lead of the Patient

Our role, and privilege, as palliative care clinicians is to accompany patients with cancer and other serious illness along their illness journey. Palliative care clinicians use thoughtful interpersonal and communication skills to follow the lead of the language used by the patient and family, or help patients and families find the language that is congruent with their emotional and physical experience of cancer and illness.

By focusing on the power of words and language as we care for patients and families with cancer and other serious illness, we can ensure that patients and families hear our most important message … not “I will fight with you”, but rather “I am here for you.”

Please check out our courses at Call our office at 760-750-4006 if you would like more information about how palliative care courses can help improve the health care professional’s communication skills.

Learn more about Kendra Deja here.

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