Faye had been dealt an over abundance of difficult things. When she was born, she was not wanted by her drug abusing mom, so her grandmother adopted her, but the seeds of being unwanted were planted.
Faye got married and had children, then her husband didn’t want her and left. She eventually met her current husband and they married and another child was born. Unfortunately, along the rocky road of searching for love and being abandoned, Faye was introduced to the same companion her birth mother had found solace in – drugs.
The problem with substance abuse is that it masks not just emotional pain, but physical pain as well. When Faye started having abdominal pain and loosing weight, she and everyone around her assumed it was the drug use. For months, vague symptoms persisted, but nothing was done.
She finally came to the hospital when days had passed and she hadn’t been able to eat. The pain was severe and by now she’d lost nearly 70 lbs. I’m sure you know where this is heading. CT scans showed a mass in her liver, and further tests showed the cancer to be everywhere. Suddenly this 30 year old mother was told she only had a few weeks to live.
I met Faye at the hospice house, the paradox of sunken cheeks and thin upper body with a distended belly and fluid filled legs from her cancer were what greeted me. She was just days into the knowledge of her disease, and it showed, she wanted medications and more medications to knock her out of her reality.
Despite this, her one clear question to me during my exam reminded me that she was absolutely still processing this. Her question came after her family had stepped out. In this private moment of a patient and their doctor, she grabbed my arm as asked, “I’m embarrassed to ask, but I have to know, did my drug use cause this?”
She was asking what everyone asks when facing death at the wrong time; “Why?” As humans we think if we can ascribe cause and effect to things, we gain some control. Often, though, the why question is laced with culpability, which is what Faye was asking. Not only was she struggling with the question of why her life was ending, she was struggling with her role in that fact.
I had a sudden dilemma, on the one hand her drug use did have a major role in how late she presented for medical attention, potentially preventing early detection and beneficial treatment. On the other hand, the drug use didn’t actually cause her cancer.
What Faye needed from me was absolution, and though just her doctor, I gave it. “Oh Faye…listen, you need to know that no decision you’ve made or action you’ve taken has caused this disease. It’s horrible, it’s ugly, it’s not fair that you are in this situation, but it is absolutely not your fault.”
She began to weep and just say “thank you” over and over again.
As a palliative care doctor, my role is to relieve suffering, sometimes this is done with medications, but often it is done with words. I couldn’t take away the suffering related to being young, a mom, and dying with cancer, but I could certainly take away any guilt associated with her disease.