If you are a health practitioner, read this book! If you are a theatre professional, read this book! If you are anyone who works in a compassionate career, read it! I’ll explain why in a moment.
I knew from the start I would enjoy this book to at least some degree because, like Dr. Charles Hayter, I started my professional career as a theatre graduate and have since made the transition to health practitioner. I wanted to learn about his journey and experiences. It does not disappoint. Indeed, hospital rooms and hallways are frequently compared to the onstage-offstage world of the theatre. It’s a unique perspective we rarely get to hear: a doctor both in love with medicine and critical of its past.
Cancer Confidential surprised me in several ways though too. First, it often reads like a mini history on oncology (the study of cancer). Second, it sensibly chronicles some of the important transformations undergone in Western medicine in recent decades. Last but not least, it’s an informative resource on how to have difficult (bedside) conversations. Hayter’s articulate language does not give instructions so much as ask tons of important questions.
At times the historical details upstage the narrative. In fact, parts read more like a textbook and the syntax takes getting used to. We learn the paternalistic “do as you are told” model of medicine was ultimately challenged with activism in women’s health, the AIDS crisis, and the widespread rise of the internet. Hayter fills us in on key figures in the development of a more client-focused model of care in oncology, including Dr. Raymond Bush and Dr. Vera Kraus.
The payoff is well worth it. Weaving the above discussions together are the powerful father-son, mother-son and client-patient relationship stories which I had expected the narrative to mostly consist of. Hayter’s thoughtful dreamscapes and playful descriptions display how a creative mind copes through what is often gut-wrenching, draining work. In one such passage, Hayter dozes off in the radiation workroom only to be comically advised in his dream by bickering British and American doctors on a ship, each trying to affirm whether four weeks of radiation at a higher dose or six weeks at a lower dose are more effective protocols. In another section of the book, Hayter describes the geographical “landscape” of a mastectomy with its “cliffs” and “bays” while contemplating how to deliver difficult news.
It’s ironic that I started reading this book as my own family member was suddenly assessed for a lethal tumour. I ended understanding more than I ever would have about their condition and prognosis. There’s a bittersweet sense of optimism and preparedness in understanding more details. In fact, it echoes one of Hayter’s main messages: directness about one’s medical condition does not create anxiety or fear, as often used by practitioners to justify their skittish behaviour . Rather, directness decreases those reactions, allowing a (human) patient to confront their life with careful thought and intention.
Cancer Confidential (2022) is available from University of Toronto Press and local bookstores.