When Words Don’t Seem to Be Enough

When Words Don’t Seem to Be Enough Shelley and Keith Hardeman

How Do You Thank Your Oncology Team for Saving Your Life?

by Keith T. Hardeman

When my wife, Shelley, finished her breast cancer treatment and received the “in remission” label, we were thrilled. But we wondered, What do we say to the healthcare providers who saved her life? How do we thank them?

When it came to cancer treatment, these were professional relationships in which the giving and receiving aspects were exclusively – and by necessity – one-sided. When friendships seem to materialize between healthcare professionals and the people they treat, the status differential is an obligatory part of the bond, as we were completely dependent on them. Treating people with cancer is their job – their chosen profession. Some are even paid handsomely for it. But that doesn’t seem to matter if it’s you or your spouse whose life has been saved or extended. They are worth every penny and more.

From the perspective of those who speak them, appreciative words may seem to fall short. But they’re likely more powerful – and far more valued – than any token gift.

As a college professor, I get to form similar close, professional relationships with my students. But all I do for them is part of my job, and I do it each day to the best of my ability, regardless of any accolades that may or may not follow. Any gratitude students show me is just icing on the cake.

However, those students move on, and then they’re replaced by new freshmen. But, in me, the incoming students get a more experienced teacher. And, probably, a better teacher because of my encounters with past students.

When Shelley got better, it was time for us to move on, too. We had to leave our wonderful oncology staff so they could provide their lifesaving skills and services to others just beginning their own fights against cancer. We have certainly missed them as people, but not as professionals (unless, God forbid, we need them again in the future because of a recurrence). But the repertoire of skills and services they’ll offer won’t be the same. I would posit that they’re enhanced because of the added learning experiences they had with Shelley and others like her.

Obviously, not everyone gets a happy ending to their cancer story. My father died from cancer in 1992, after enduring years of harsh treatments that, ultimately, did not save his life. A few days before he passed, I asked him if he felt the trade-off of his side effects in his final year was worth the possibility of a little more time. His answer was a profound surprise to me: “No,” he said, “but I’m not doing this for myself. I only survived cancer as long as I have because others before me took their chances with new treatments. Even if I don’t make it, my doctors can still learn from my illness.”

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Dad was the most noble and selfless individual I’ve ever known. And he knew that acquiring knowledge of what didn’t work to treat his cancer was likely as critical to medical science as learning what did. My father kept going, even when hope was dim, and that’s how he gave back. Oncologists treat us and often save us. But, either way, they learn from us. And they become better for it.

Professor Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer, is credited with saying, “Sometimes you can’t pay it back, so you just have to pay it forward.” As our cancer-surviving friends did for Shelley and me at the outset of our struggle by showing empathy and holding us up with their support, Shelley and I now do the same for others. By imparting our stories, wisdom, and experiences, we can give them a little bit of hope and predictability, which is what we found to be so useful. And when they finish their arduous journeys, they can do the same for the next unlucky cancer families. Because until cancer is finally cured, those families will keep coming. Shelley and I may never be able to pay it back, but we can certainly pay it forward. We’ll continue to do that for the rest of our lives. And that’s the way it should be.

Shelley and I may never be able to pay it back, but we can certainly pay it forward. We’ll continue to do that for the rest of our lives. And that’s the way it should be.

But it does bring us back to the original question: When cancer treatment concludes, how do you thank your oncology team? I wish I had a more pragmatic answer. Perhaps with a floral arrangement, a gift certificate,
a coffee club membership, or a bottle of fine whiskey. Or, maybe, just take the time to tell them thank you in heartfelt terms.

After the good outcome of Shelley’s first post-treatment MRI, I personally addressed our oncologist: “Thank you for saving my partner,” I said to her. “Thank you for helping to make the worst of human situations tolerable, livable, and, eventually, much better. Thank you for listening. Thank you for caring far beyond what your professional obligations could ever require. And, most of all, thank you for being so damn good at your job.”
When I said those words, our oncologist was clearly moved. And when she extended her appreciation, she also confessed that few of her patients or their caregivers take the time to thank her.

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From the perspective of those who speak them, appreciative words may seem to fall short. But they’re likely more powerful – and far more valued – than any token gift. So, when you’re wondering how to thank the people who worked diligently to save your life or that of a loved one, sometimes, words truly are enough.


Keith Hardeman is a professor of Speech Communication and the John Ashley Cotton Endowed Scholar’s Chair in Humanities at Westminster College in Fulton, MO.

This article is excerpted and adapted from Professor Hardeman’s book The Shadow of Trepidation: Reflections on Caregiving during my Wife’s Battle with Breast Cancer, Outskirts Press, 2021.

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