The Art of Speaking Plainly About Cancer

Joanne Lynn Intile, DVM, MS, DACVIM
Published: March 27, 2013
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I’ve just returned from a meeting with my financial advisor and the experience started me thinking.

As he patiently explained the difference between stocks and bonds, high and low-risk investments, and why my current brokerage account is losing money despite the upturn of the stock market, my head nodded in apparent outward agreement. This was in complete disconnect from the thoughts actually transpiring in my mind, which were more of a “Huh — that’s interesting, but could you say it again, and a little slower this time?” nature.

I patiently watched his hands sketch out the hypothetical rate of growth of an investment over time on a blank piece of paper. I marveled at his excitement in discussing 401K contributions and tax breaks. I thought to myself, “Wow, if only I could be this enthusiastic about anything in my life!” when suddenly, I had a revelation: “This must be exactly what owners go through when I am explaining their pet’s diagnosis and treatment options!”

For me, discussing a diagnosis of cancer is typically very straightforward. The terminology is sensible to me, but unlike the average pet owner, I’ve been a science geek obsessed with biology since the age of six. I understand anatomy and physiology, and how form relates to function. I am fascinated by cancer and I know how tumor cells develop in the body, how they grow, and how they spread. I know the difference between the circulatory system and the lymphatic system and what it means when cancer cells metastasize via one route versus the other.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy aren’t scary words to me, and I know they are valuable treatment modalities used in completely different circumstances. Since these concepts are so familiar to me, it can be difficult to remember how scary and confusing they can be to people not used to dealing with them on a daily basis, especially in relation to how they apply them to their own pets.

As I sat in my meeting today, I realized that just because diagnosing and treating cancer makes sense to me, as the graphs and charts make sense to my financial planner, it doesn’t mean that 1) I’m particularly talented at explaining these complex topics to people who do not possess a science background, or 2) when owners nod their heads and appear to follow what I’m discussing, they may not actually truly understand what it is I’m saying — they may simply be too intimidated to ask me to slow down and say everything all over again.

Today, I experienced firsthand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of when a person considered a specialist in their field discusses a complicated topic related to their area of expertise. I wanted to appear as though I understood everything he was saying, I didn’t want to feel as though I was wasting his time, and moreover, I didn’t want to appear as though I wasn’t smart enough to know what he was explaining. It allowed me to realize just how much I’ve taken my conversation skills for granted as they relate to discussing cancer and its treatment with owners.

I thought also about how I left my meeting today feeling much better about my finances, not because anything truly changed about my situation from the time I walked in the door to when I walked out, but because I felt confident in what my planner had to say and that he listened to my goals, concerns, and questions. I also felt that should I need to ask him anything further, he would be willing to listen, and had my best interests in mind. I really felt he wanted to help me reach my financial objectives.

It seemed as though he truly enjoyed his job, and despite making it clear that he felt stretched thin managing hundreds of clients, he still managed to give me the time I needed, thus I left feeling fulfilled. I couldn’t help but wonder if I am equally successful at accomplishing the same things in my professional life, and how I could be even better at doing so?

Today’s experiences really reinforced how I need to continually keep working on my communication skills and how my professional life is a proverbial “work in progress.”

I thought about how one of the biggest compliments I can hear is for an owner to say, “You really explained this in such great detail, I feel really well-equipped to make a decision about things now.” I’m going to work extra hard to be sure I hear this phrase at least once before the week is over.

Who knew I could learn so much from a financial planner that had nothing to do with money?

Dr. Joanne Intile

Image: Amy Rene / via Shutterstock