What Price Compassion?

October 28, 2015

Oncologists, whether they like it or not, must develop some psychological skills if they ever hope to master the art of caring for people living with cancer.

“When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, ‘Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me.’”

“If I let myself really understand another person, I might be changed by that understanding. And we all fear change. So as I say, it is not an easy thing to permit oneself to understand an individual.”

  - Carl Rogers, American Psychologist (1902–1987) 

Oncologists, whether they like it or not, must develop some psychological skills if they ever hope to master the art of caring for people living with cancer. Among our many duties we serve as therapists to those diagnosed with, living with, and dying with cancer. Therefore, it behooves us to recognize the benefits of communicating our regard for our patients’ lives and our concern for their anxieties. Compassion, defined as sympathy for another’s woes and a desire to ease them, is succor for fear. Compassion creates a bond of trust between doctors and patients that soothes painful emotions and provides support during difficult times. Given the oncologist’s busy schedule, is compassion a superficial gratuity or does it require training and execution in order to be meaningful? How do we, who have no formal training as therapists, learn to value it for our patients and use it successfully?

The eminent psychologist Carl Rogers, known as the father of client-centered therapy and the author of the two quotations above, would be a welcome addition to the oncology staff. His philosophy of therapy emphasized letting the client (his term for patients) direct the course of discussion as a means toward deeper understanding, and he emphasized the need for the therapist to follow certain guidelines. I believe his method fits perfectly with our need to learn the skill of compassion. Let’s look at the three qualities Rogers requires the therapist to possess and how they can be used in the oncology clinic.

1.Congruence, also known as Genuineness. This is the ability to be real, to be transparent, with no façade of self-importance or didactic formality that could build a wall between the patients and us. In order to express compassion to the needy, we must project an honest image of ourselves; we must drop the mask hiding our true feelings. For example, if I’m having a bad day, I should admit it rather than act frustrated for no reason. If something funny comes to me, I will share it. I want to let my patients see me for who I truly am-a fellow human being, with no appetite for phoniness.

2.Unconditional Positive Regard. Just as it is named, this means accepting patients for who they are and eliminating any prejudices or disparaging feelings that threaten to surface. We all have personality quirks, shortcomings in communication skills, imbalances, and hidden agendas. We must not let anyone’s flaws or foibles poison our professional relationship. No matter how unpleasant, annoying, nervous, or angry our patients are, we shall respect them as unique individuals and not let them influence us in a negative, unhelpful way. Inside all of us is a yearning for respect and love. Thus, compassion is meant to be shown to all-no favoritism.

3.Empathy. Dr. Rogers believed that the therapist must be able to accurately interpret the inner emotions and struggles of the client “as if one were the person, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ condition.” Oncologists who are able to see a situation through the eyes of their patients will succeed in their mission. We must be able to “enter another’s world without prejudice,” and the best way to do this is by being perfectly comfortable in our own skin to the point that we can block our inner reactions and focus entirely on what it must be like to be the patient. Empathy will never fail to bring forth compassion.

In my opinion, compassion in the oncology clinic is 90% listening and 10% speaking, and it can only be given by those who have learned how to leave themselves out of the picture. Our opinions, biases, peculiarities, and attitudes are immaterial to the job at hand. When their lives are on the line, our patients want to know, “Does my doctor really care about me or not?” May we never be ignorant of that unspoken question, and may we always be ready to reveal the happy answer, again and again.