Cork doctor hits out at ‘patient blaming’ following her cancer diagnosis

Cork doctor hits out at ‘patient blaming’ following her cancer diagnosis
Dr Doireann O'Leary was diagnosed with cancer which forced her to undergo abdominal surgery last June.

A CORK GP has slammed a phenomenon she refers to as “patient blaming” after shaming remarks in the wake of a traumatic cancer diagnosis.

Dr Doireann O’Leary was diagnosed with cancer a number of months ago and was taken aback at the line of questioning that resulted in her feeling blamed for her illness.

The Cork woman revealed she was diagnosed with cancer which forced her to undergo abdominal surgery last June. Dr O’Leary had received her diagnosis just 18 days after losing her father to cancer.

“The reaction that I got made me realise that patient-blaming is a real thing that happens to people,” she said. 

Dr Doireann O'Leary: "I was even told that the sole cause of cancer is eating sugar."
Dr Doireann O'Leary: "I was even told that the sole cause of cancer is eating sugar."

“I was constantly asked what my diet was like and whether there were early signs that lead me to believe I needed to visit my GP. It’s almost as if people are forcing you to admit that if you had done things a certain way you wouldn’t be in this position. There are so many accusations to suggest that you weren’t looking after yourself. I was even told that the sole cause of cancer is eating sugar. This is really hurtful to someone who had cancer because it’s like suggesting you were harming yourself and that you wanted to die.”

She stressed that many others have shared her sentiment

“A woman contacted me and said that when her father died of liver cancer the first question people asked was ‘was he a drinker?’ There is a real cruelty about this, and also a sense of detachment.”

She said that people very often are in search of a reason to ensure they won’t experience the same fate.

“They want a reason in order to feel like they have control of their own health. It’s understandable that people don’t know what to say in a situation like this but all you have to do is say ‘I’m very sorry’.”

She urged cancer sufferers not to feel guilty adding: “Questions that hint at victim-blaming can be very intrusive, and extremely difficult for people with families who are lead to feel like they intentionally brought this stress and turmoil into their family. Many people want to believe that you can’t become sick unless there is a clear reason.

“However, much of the time it’s down to luck. In some ways, I’m glad that’s the case because if people were constantly wishing they could turn back the clock and not drink alcohol or consume less sugar then that could be very emotionally damaging.”

Dr O’Leary was glad that she was strong enough for the comments not to have a lasting impact.

“When I was a patient all I could think was ‘I want to be that other person again.’ I want to be the doctor again. Maybe I’m stronger now but I think it’s still too early to say.”

Her hope is to now raise awareness of victim-blaming through her Instagram page. In a recent social media post she bravely shared details about her illness. An extract from the post read as follows:

“June 27th, the day I survived cancer. The best day of my life. I haven’t shared any of this up to now as I needed space, but on May 1st I found out that I had cancer, 18 months after my dad died from cancer. I underwent a number of tests, scans and procedures, too many to count. There’s been terrifying highs and terrifying lows. Very scary times where we didn’t know what would happen me or if I would survive. Ultimately, I was told that my cancer was operable. I had major abdominal surgery on June 17th, the day before my sister’s anniversary. My fertility has been affected by this but we will overcome it thanks to modern medicine.”

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