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Death By a Thousand Cuts

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

I walk into the cancer hospital for my breast ultrasound appointment. I arrive alone and I’m wearing my mask. There’s a tall man, a staff member, who is screening for COVID at the door.

The first thing he says is, “You can’t wear that mask. You have to wear our medical one.” “OK,” I say, and go back outside to switch masks. The medical mask smells awful. I go back into the building.

“Can you please let me into the stairwell?” I ask. I knew from a previous visit that the outside stairwell that is nearby is locked and a staff member has to let you inside with their card. My son is immune compromised and I'm cautious in public buildings. I avoid elevators if I can.

“No, I can’t.”

I’m confused because the last time I was there two weeks ago, a screener let me in. “I don’t want to take the elevator in a pandemic,” I say, repeating my request.

He shrugs.

I’m close to tears. I don’t have my husband with me, as I usually would, because I’m not allowed to bring a support person. I walk dejectedly towards the elevator, which I know from previous visits is usually packed with people.

My mind is racing to think of another tactic. I go back and ask politely, “Can you show me an internal stairwell and I’ll go there?”

“I don’t know where they are.” Another shrug.

I feel silly, but I’m actively crying now. I can’t think of a recourse. I give up and take the elevator. It’s empty, so there’s no risk to me. I know I shouldn’t be crying, but I’m also totally stressed out to be going for this ultrasound to see if my breast cancer has returned in the other breast. There are ‘suspicious spots.’

I call my husband when I get to the third floor and wail into the phone. He’s waiting in the car outside in the pouring rain. “Do you want me to come?” he asks, concerned. “No,” I say, “They won’t let you inside anyhow.”

This no big deal is a big deal.

I dry my tears off in the ultrasound change room. The ultrasound hurts a lot. The tech is pressing really hard on my breast and in my armpit. I have a male tech and I’m not happy about that, but what can I do? I’m passive and compliant as they want me to be.

I’ve had many ultrasounds I don’t remember it hurting so badly. I’m silent, my eyes shut tight, my teeth clenched. People keep coming in and out of the ultrasound room while I’m lying there, my breast exposed to the world. It is painful and humiliating.

Did the whole experience need to be this way? No, no it didn’t. Once again, I get the feeling that I’m just a bother to the staff in the hospital.

On my way out, I pass the drop-off area at the front of the building. There's an elderly gentleman parked there, waiting in the rain for someone, perhaps his wife. There's a man at the window of his car speaking to him loudly, and I can't help but overhear. It is the driver of the Interhospital transfer van. He's angry the elderly man is parked in the drop-off zone. "Get out of the way," he yells, "you can't park here." Witnessing this exchange makes me even sadder because I know that it isn't just me who is the recipient of unkind behaviour.

It feels like a betrayal when the people who are supposed to care about you actually don’t care about you at all.

I’ve learned that kindness is an active choice. You can choose to do nothing, to do the bare minimum of your job, or you can choose to go over and above your call of duty to be kind. The screener could have opened the stairwell for me. If he couldn’t leave his post, he could have asked someone else to do it. He could have found out where another stairwell was. But he chose not to.

I have been called a whiner, oversensitive, dramatic and hysterical when I speak up about these little cruelties in health care. I reject this name-calling. Sticks and stones, folks.

I have a friend who has metastatic cancer and has signed up for MAID because she won’t go back to the hospital because of the way she has been treated there. Not just by her physician, but by everybody who works in the facility.

I have a chapter in my book called Everybody is a Health Professional – every single person who works in health care – whether they are a clinician or not – has an effect on patient care.

I have another friend who has Stage 4 cancer and goes to the same cancer hospital regularly for treatment. She describes the way she is treated there as ‘death by a thousand cuts.’ Cuts from the parking attendant who won’t smile, the switchboard operator who is curt, the greeter who forces you to take the elevator, the receptionist who reluctantly looks up to check you in like you are the last person she wants to see in the world. Another staff who yells your name across the waiting room to come in.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that patients already feel shitty because we have cancer. All those tiny cuts contribute to making a cancer patient feel even shittier than we already do.

The solution is compassion.

This is the realization that every single person presenting to you in the cancer hospital is having a hard day. A welcome. A smile, even underneath your mask. Giving the sense that you are glad to see me and that I’m not an interruption to your day. Going out of your way, even a little bit, to be actively kind.

The opposite of kind is cruel. Little micro-aggressions teeter on cruelty. You have the power to make a patient’s day a wee bit better. If you just try one tiny kind action today – help someone lost in the hall, smile and say hello to everybody you pass, do a small act that’s out of your way – I can guarantee it will help brighten your day too, even in a pandemic.

Kindness begets kindness. Please pass it on.


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Dec 14, 2020

Dear Brian - I rarely get comments on my blog, and yours is an exceptional one. Thank you for taking the time to write to me.

I am so heartened to hear you are a teacher, and someone who has great influence on our future generations. Imagine if future generations grow up cherishing kindness instead of profit, community instead of selfishness, caring instead of capitalism? What a beautiful world it would be.

In the meantime, please know your words spoke deeply to me. I'm still waiting on my test results - they are quite late now and I hope my cancer hasn't returned too. Somehow knowing there are people out there like you who still believe in compassion...well, that means…


Brian Trenholm
Brian Trenholm
Dec 13, 2020

Sue, thank you for sharing this post! It resonates with me and I wish I had come across your path on this day (although I am in Ontario).

You are so right with your prescription for society in general. When did kindness become such a rare commodity? Why does cynicism and negativity seem to be most people's default settings anymore?

I am a teacher and I see the equivalent to your experience being what many children are exposed to regularly. I understand that everyone has stress and circumstances that may not allow for then to be "present", or emotionally available especially to strangers. But the opposite of kid is cruel. And how hard is it to help elevate anothers spirit?

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