From 3M Health Information Systems
Cancer and kindness: A message from my late sister-in-law
My sister-in-law recently passed away after a decade-long battle with cancer. By the time she passed, she had come to amazing acceptance and peace. She even formulated a list called, “Five Reasons Why Cancer Rocks.”
Number one on the list was, “Cancer brings out the best in people.” She talked about people noticing her thin hair and helping her get things off store shelves and paying her bill at restaurants. She related how moms from school brought her hats and how people offered to take care of her kids. She spoke of a plumber who came to their house, did his job, left and later came back with dinner and flowers. She was touched by people’s willingness to cut her and her family some slack when she couldn’t take on as much as usual and her home wasn’t running like a well-oiled machine. She was overwhelmed by people’s kindness.
She said, “I really wish everyone had a little sign across their chest that declared the hard thing they’re going through. I have cancer, but they probably have something just as hard. I wish we all realized how much struggle is going on inside every person. Maybe we would all be gentler with each other.”
I’ve thought about that a lot. I hope I’m kind to people who are going through cancer and or another devastating illness. I hope I cut people some slack when they’re going through hard things. But, as my sister-in-law said, isn’t everyone going through hard things? Why not cut everyone some slack and be kind to everyone?
Have I instead devised an intricate hierarchy of “slack criteria?” I’ll cut you some slack – I’ll be kind to you — if you meet these criteria. If not, well, good luck. How have I devised that hierarchy? Is it based on your severity of illness (cancer: yes, common cold: no) or other degree of difficulty (loss of employment: yes, just having a hard day: no)? On your personality (move up the hierarchy if you’ve got a pleasant personality, down if not so much)? Or on the degree to which (according to my all-knowing judgment) you’ve brought your hardships on yourself?
These slack criteria seem silly, but how often do we unwittingly use that made up hierarchy? Maybe instead, in this fairly new year, we could strive to cut everyone some slack and be kind to everyone. What would that look like in our personal lives, with our families, our friends and the people we happen to have brief intersections with every day? What would it look like in the workplace, with associates, people who report to us, clients, customers, patients, suppliers, auditors, credentialers, vendors, coders, IT staff, records clerks, support staff, supervisors and everyone else?
We hear a lot these days about the need to treat each other with civility and respect. But I’d argue that that’s a pretty low bar. Yes, our society often isn’t even clearing that low bar. But what if we aimed higher? What if my goal was to treat everyone like those people treated my sister-in-law? I might not change our whole society, but it just might make a difference in the lives of those I happen to bump into as we’re jostled about together in life. And it will surely change me.
Tom Oniki, PhD, is a director of medical informatics for 3M Health Information Systems.