Thursday, May 10, 2007

What is it about dentists? (For Snickollet)

It's odd how synchronous my experiences are with Snickollet's, even though I'm "ahead" in the whole widowhood game. Just last week, for example, at the dentist's office:

HYGIENIST: So, are you a married lady? [I kid you not--and she was about my age, which is certainly adult, but not old enough to ask a question in that way. I felt like I was having a conversation with Jimmy Stewart!]

DORCASINA: I'm a widow. My husband passed away [oh god--why can't I just say "died"?] about 18 months ago.

HYGIENIST: I'm so sorry. Do you talk about him?

DORCASINA: All the time.

HYGIENIST: Was it sudden, or could you see it coming?

D: [thinks to self: what difference does that make?] He had cancer.

H: I'm so sorry. What kind?

D: Esophageal.

H: (brightly): Oh. Was he a smoker? (emphasis on the last word, in a sort of "Aha!")

D: Ummmm. No.

---10 minutes later; in the same dental chair---

AVUNCULAR DENTIST: So, I understand you've been visited by tragedy recently...


AD: Was it cancer?

D: Yes. Esophageal cancer.

AD: Oh. Was he a smoker? (as above)

D: [wishing I had the nerve to say it aloud] No. But he did a lot of heroin. And he never wore his seatbelt. And rode a motorcycle without a helmet. And we had lots of unprotected sex. With other people. So yes, if it makes you feel better, it really was his fault. As a non-smoker, clearly you are safe.

Sallie Tisdale has a powerful piece in the most recent Harper's about nursing on a cancer floor, the science of chemotherapy, and the psychology of cancer treatment. If you can bear it, especially if you know someone undergoing cancer treatment, it's required reading. Worth the cover price, and evidently not yet available online, except to subscribers.



At 11:51 PM , Anonymous Tammy Wolfgram said...

oworkv"Dorcasina," I know a lot of people with esophageal cancer, as I run an online support group for people with EC. I think everyone gets the smoking question, and from different people for different reasons. I am surprised at how many doctors still don't seem to realize that the most prevalent form of EC in this country isn't caused by smoking, but by chronic acid reflux. And yes, there is a certain illusion of safety if people can find a "reason" that someone else got cancer. Ostensibly, that "reason" will also make them safe from cancer, though you and I know that isn't quite how cancer works. BTW, my husband is a 12 year survivor of EC, and yup. He smoked. He also had Barrett's Esophagus and a family history of gastro-esophageal cancer on both sides of his family. It's funny, but no one ever asked him about the second fact.

At 8:25 AM , Blogger flossie said...

Oh my god, why do people ask such insensitive questions? Especially people you barely know. I guess they mean well, but the "was he a smoker" question really crosses the line into smugness/rudeness territory.

After my dad died, I felt like brief expressions of sympathy helped me far more than a barrage of questions. Now I say "I'm so sorry" when hearing of others' losses and then let them volunteer more information if they want to.

At 9:20 AM , Blogger Yankee T said...

Oh fer chrissake what a drag. I do think that people are so afraid of cancer that they're always looking for a reason. But I don't care. Put the other person first for ONE SECOND, wouldja? Especially health professionals. What the hell ever happened to compassion? This kind of thing bugs the crap out of me.

At 2:51 PM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Tammy, I'm pretty sure my husband was involved in your group, and it was a tremendous help to him. Up until almost the last hours of his life, he was more concerned about others on his email list than about himself. You are doing amazing work. And yes, he had Barrett's, as well.

And to be fair: 1) I played along with these questions, because I knew that my husband would have been pleased by the somewhat ghoulish curiosity they displayed--he used to get a kick out of the people who asked him intrusive and grotesque questions about his illness and the results of the treatment. The dentist and hygienist here were nice people, and would have stopped asking if I had seemed upset. So I sort of set them up. 2) Part of the reason I mention Tisdale is that she confesses, at the end of the article, to feeling a bit of the 'thank god it's not me' feeling that everyone has when confronted by someone else's disease. It's a familiar and understandable response. Most people in these days are quite justifiably terrified of cancer, and the urge to distance oneself from it is instinctive. I'm not so unsympathetic to that impulse--or to any of the human frailties people expose when confronted by my husband's death, at 35, from something we all hate and fear.

I was kind of enjoying the encounter, simply because it was refreshing to have a change from the "oh I'm so sorry..." and the inevitable embarrassed silence that follows. At least they were interested! And it was a little bizarre that they seemed so naive about what might be considered appropriate.

Thanks to all of you for your outrage on my behalf.

At 6:19 PM , Blogger Snickollet said...

Oh. My. Gosh. I am without words. And I am a person who usually has lots of words! Wow. I never cease to be amazed by the kind of questions people think it's OK to ask.

I did laugh out loud at, "So, are you a married lady?"

So far, I have mostly avoided saying "passed away" and instead just use good old "died." I hvae to say, people really look at you askance when you call a spade a spade.

At 9:36 PM , Blogger OTRgirl said...

Having just seen a Jimmy Stewart movie, I could easily see that whole scene spruced up a bit with some snappy diaglogue and run as a hilarious skit. Tragi-comedy at it's best.

At 5:09 PM , Blogger Bad Alice said...

Okay, now I'm a bit worried because my 5 year old has reflux. Jeepers.

Even the most sensitive souls sometimes have bizarre ways of expressing themselves. You'd be surprised how many people have told me that if I had to have mastectomy, at least I got a tummy tuck out of it as well (for reconstruction). And you know, I am kind of glad I did get a bit of payback.

Don't go back to the dentist--they'll probably try to set you up with someone.


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