I am on the road this week.
First, I took a trip to West Palm Beach for a family wedding. On arrival at the airport, and at the wedding, it was apparent there are some small stylistic differences between southern Florida and the Midwest. However, the similarities far exceeded the differences and it would be a stretch to say there is a big cultural difference between the two.
Then, yesterday, I got on a plane and flew over the Atlantic to represent the Association of American Cancer Institutes at a meeting of the Organization of European Cancer Institutes in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. In fact, I am sending this blog from Cluj where I arrived a few hours ago. I spent this afternoon walking around the town to help me deal with jet lag before the meeting starts tonight. In less than 24 hours, I went from tanned Florida retirees to a dynamic eastern European country where I don’t know the language. Now, that is culture shock!
Despite the shock, it is very exciting to be here, and I look forward to seeing more of this different and dynamic culture over the next few days. Even after a few hours, I can see that while Romania is rapidly pulling itself into the modern world, aspects of a pre-18th century pre-motorized society and soviet-bloc blandness remain. The sights, sounds and smells are very different from those I am used to at home. Cluj may not have the sophisticated polish of more famous western European cities but it certainly has the energy and the character. This type of “culture shock” is fun to experience.
That is not true of all forms of culture shock, such as that experienced by patients when they first walk into our Cancer Center. They quickly transition from being healthy individuals going about their daily lives, to suddenly being thrust into a very different environment. Not only do they have to deal with a new role (being a cancer patient) and a foreign language (oncology-speak), they also face the fear and uncertainty of their diagnosis and what the future holds.
I know that in a few days, I will be getting on an airplane and flying back home from Romania. I will immediately step into my old role and my own culture. The same is not true for cancer patients. The amount of time they will spend in their new role and in the foreign and intimidating culture of the cancer center is uncertain. It is, in many ways, out of their control.
I had a choice to come to Romania (and am enjoying it immensely), but patients have no choice about entering the cancer center. While they might appreciate why the cancer center environment exists, and how it can help them, I don’t think any patient would say they are “enjoying” the experience. Indeed, entering the cancer center as a patient is not a choice, it is a necessity.
So, when I return to my own culture that includes my work, the language of oncology-speak, and the familiar sights, sounds and smells of the cancer center, I will do my best to remember that the patient experience is very different and includes a very severe form of culture shock. I will do what I can to ease the anxiety and fear they are experiencing in this strange and foreign place.