What you need to know about Existential Suffering

Snow in the Northwest - what is the world coming to?

Pain and Suffering are different things. This is something I have pondered in superficial ways at times. After reading quite an amazing post, Pain vs Suffering: Why they’re not the same for Patients, on the blog Heart Sisters, my mind is whirling. Carolyn Thomas’s well researched article explains so much.  Though she is a longtime cardiology patient, her insights really speak to the experience of anyone.

This morning I went to the lymphedema specialist that I have been seeing for nearly three years.  My lymph issues are very well controlled with the use of a compression sleeve, and behavior modification. I generally see her monthly for lymphatic massage, to just check in, and perhaps most importantly to have her work on my beleaguered trapezius muscle.  The peace of mind I receive from seeing her regularly can not be over emphasized. So it is with some sadness that she informed me today that she will be moving in order to care for aging family members.

Since I read Ms. Thomas’s most excellent article on the difference between Pain and Suffering early this morning, it puts that spin on the situation.  It has me thinking about where the western  medical model very real blind spots around suffering are. While attempting to be Objective and Scientific, like the oncologist that I visit, they are not set up to help us work on healing our emotional issues brought up by their treatments. It is sort of like calling the boyfriend who broke up with you to process the pain you are feeling because they broke up with you.

The immensely compassionate and real humanness of the lymphatic specialist I have been seeing is notable.  While the oncologist is interested in any new concerning symptoms, or pain, he is not so interested in how I am handling it emotionally. The lymphatic specialist has always also been interested in both, what symptoms I am having, and how I am doing emotionally, that is to say whether or not I am suffering.  Because of that dual monitoring, when for the first time I had a two month gap between office visits, she recognized it as a sign that my suffering has become more manageable.  ( I still had some physical symptoms during that gap.)

The western medical model as it plays out in the US tries to separate the body and mind. For instance medical doctors are generally not reimbursed by insurance for counseling someone around their suffering, simply because they are not psychologists.  This is a system based disincentive for compassion. Even though the individual doctors probably well know the truth about the emotional components to disease.  As patients we have no way of knowing that when a doctor does step into the compassionate box they do so on their own nickel.  Thereby providing care that addresses suffering despite the system.  For a doctor working within a corporate organization this can be somewhat problematic for them as individuals.

As patients I think we need to retrain ourselves to recognize when we need help addressing our suffering.  Where we get that help may not be from our doctors. Too often after the end of treatments for the physical symptoms of cancering, patients are set free from the system with a plethora of emotional burdens.  Which is not helped when the very drugs we take can increase anxiety.  The medical system is broken in many ways, this is reality. As patients we have the option to be proactive in our care despite this brokenness. We can take steps to address our needs on all levels to reduced some of the suffering that is almost built into the current system.

I highly recommend Ms. Thomas’s article as a useful starting point about the vocabulary of suffering.  Because it can be very easy to simply dismiss your experiences that may not be logical or objective, as inconsequential.  Knowing that many if not most people experience emotional and psychological fall out after a serious illness can help us be gentle to ourselves as we recover. Knowing it may help us ask for the help we need addressing our difficulties that are off the objective map.


I am so grateful to Jan, my lymph lady, for all of her calm kindness over the last three years. The grief I felt after my mastectomy over the loss of my lymph nodes and part of my pectoral muscle, and the accompanying loss of functionality of my right arm, was greatly lessoned by her compassionate care.  I will miss her,  not only as a provider of care, but as a friend.

You can read the article  here:
Pain vs Suffering: Why they’re not the same for Patients, by Carolyn Thomas on the blog Heart Sisters

P.S. I came to Heart Sisters from the Weekly Round-up on the excellent blog, Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer. Which I can also highly recommend.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Thank you Iris for your very kind words about my “Pain vs. Suffering” blog post on Heart Sisters. I love the example of the compassionate care of your “lymph lady” as one who eases suffering. And I especially loved your insights such as: “As patients I think we need to retrain ourselves to recognize when we need help addressing our suffering.” YES!!! So many of us soldier on, trying not to be a bother or worry our families or make a fuss even in the face of distressing psychosocial fallout.
    PS I hope you get another wonderful lymph lady very soon… 🙂

    1. Iridacea says:

      Thank you! your article is such a great post- I hope my tiny readership heads your way to check it out.
      xo iris

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