Being told you have cancer can be devastating. But despite being given extensive training in how to communicate a diagnosis of cancer sensitively and effectively, many patients still feel that their doctor could have done a better job.
Moreover, no two patients are alike – everyone reacts differently under stress, and doctors face a considerable challenge in understanding exactly what makes each person they care for tick.
In her play Cancer Tales, writer Nell Dunn explores many of the issues that arise at the interface between the medical and the emotional. Written in 2003 after extensive conversation with cancer patients, their families, oncologists and nurses, the play was subsequently adapted into a workbook, Cancer Tales – Communication in Cancer Care (pdf), aimed at improving and strengthening lines of communication between doctors and patients.
At this year’s NCRI Conference, we were treated to an excerpt from the play, directed by Trevor Walker, featuring two of the five interwoven stories that make up the complete Tales.
We meet Clare, a young professional recently diagnosed with womb cancer, trying to make sense of the conflicting emotions she’s experiencing. Her story is intercut with that of Mary and her daughter Rebecca, who has leukaemia.
The play relies heavily on soliloquy to allow us to understand the innermost thoughts and fears of its protagonists. And this takes us on a rollercoaster ride of emotion. In the space of a few minutes, we share Clare’s intense joy and relief at her surgeon’s revelation that he thought her hysterectomy went well, only to feel her subsequent humiliation and anxiety as she prepares for transvaginal radiotherapy after her cancer spreads.
The play also effectively explores the mother-daughter relationship between Rebecca and Mary, illustrating the issues that inevitably arise when parents lose control of caring for their child, and the unspoken barriers that can arise as the disease takes its toll.
If the play has any faults, it’s that it (very) occasionally drops into a slightly lecturing tone, which temporarily breaks its hold on your emotions. And it would have been nice to hear a male perspective on the cancer journey. The play’s female focus unintentionally reinforces the female patient/male doctor stereotype – although there is one memorable scene where an experienced consultant oncologist suddenly notices he’s weeping with the years of built-up emotion.
When the word ‘performance’ appears on a conference programme – especially that of a science conference – it’s often a cause for concern rather than celebration. But despite my initial misgivings, I’m happy to report that The Cancer Tales is not your average conference ‘art’ project. It is magnificent, moving and extremely thought-provoking.