Wearing A Game Face

Posted on: February 5th, 2014 by

I’m a relatively content person. Yet doctors’ visits conjure up sadness and fear and grief. Since cancer turned my world upside down, appointments with physicians are so difficult.

I appreciate my physicians tremendously. Besides their high competence, they have superior people skills. They talk to me as my doctors, offering sound medical advice, but they don’t treat me like a patient.

They treat me like family.

These genuine, caring, decent people always take the time to chat with me. No matter how incredibly busy they are, these individuals treat me like I’m the only patient they have.

Their kindness helps ease the pain of having to see them.

My doctors enjoy my company, I think. I smile, laugh with them, telling them about my latest projects. I tell them about my daughter and show pictures. I tell them how well I’m doing and how wonderful and awesome my life is. This is true.

But not completely.


What my physicians may not know is that at each appointment I put on my game face.

smiley face

I smile and laugh with them.

But I won’t tell them that a Pandora’s Box of fears fly out of my mind with fury at each appointment. More often than not I want to cry, and I need to keep flashbacks at bay. I am always battling to get out of the ugly place where fear-demons live.

After most appointments, I calmly get in my car, and that’s when it all hits. I sob uncontrollably – partly because of relief that another doctor’s visit is complete and partly because keeping my emotions in check drains me.

With such supportive medical professionals, you would think I could really dig down deep, open my full heart to them, and tell them how truly haunted I am. Instead, I put on that game face and tell them happy things, things I want them to hear:

My life is complete.

My life is great.

I have accomplishments and fun hobbies that are always pleasant to talk about.

Truth is, I want to be a medical success story – their medical success story.

I’m afraid if I show my fear, maybe they will view my fears as doubts of their competence.

I’m afraid if I reveal my inner fears, medical professionals might think I’m unappreciative.

Maybe if I cry in front of them, they will perceive me as weak.

And I won’t show the deep core of my fears for another reason – I view each doctor’s appointment as the opportunity to grapple with my demons – and to win the battle by not falling apart in front of my physicians. I see this for what it is, some silly competition with my greatest competitor – myself.

Perhaps if I allowed my doctors into my world just a bit more, if I allowed them to see me falling into the abyss of fear – they might just catch me.


So I’ve been trying a new strategy lately. I’ve allowed some doctors to see the cracks in the facade. After all, one can keep up a positive performance for only so long before the wear-and-tear of omission begins to show.

I recently began to hint to doctors that things are not all peachy on planet Gainer. I admitted to my primary care physician, “Whenever I get an ache or pain, I get scared I have cancer.” She was supportive, reassuring me that I am not alone, as this is a common reaction of patients affected by cancer. I once confessed to my oncologist that I was feeling vulnerable. He was sweet and said, “Of course you feel that way. After all you’ve been through, I can understand that.”

And, finally, I’m learning that when I reach out to my doctors, they reach out to me.

Do you disclose your fears to doctors? Why or why not?

How is your relationship with your doctor(s)?

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15 Responses to Wearing A Game Face

  1. Carolyn Thomas had this to say about that:

    Such an important topic, Beth. Thank you for this. Keeping up that game face is exhausting!

    Sociologists call this “emotional labour” – the suppression of feelings to provide a welcoming outward appearance to others. Many of us have mastered this facade, which means others feel better around us (“Look how well she’s doing!”) while inside, we can experience a growing sense of isolation behind the game face. I wrote about this in: “Smile,Though Your Heart is Aching: Is Fake Smiling Unhealthyhttp://myheartsisters.org/2012/04/05/faking-smiles-unhealthy/

    Thanks for reminding us that the game face is neither a permanent nor honest body part.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Thank you for your comment, Carolyn. I will be checking out your blog post about the same topic. You make a sound point about our facade making others feel better around us. The game face is real, but as you say, it’s not honest.

      I’ve started being more straightforward with my docs as mentioned in this post. I find it refreshing and helpful when doctors empathized.

  2. ButDoctorIHatePink had this to say about that:

    I guess it’s different for me having metastatic cancer. I still see my oncologist monthly and always will. I have already experienced what you fear so that doesn’t enter into the equation. However, if I was having fears or emotional problems I would mention it – I would say we have a good relationship, medically speaking. I’ve seen him a couple hundred times by now!

    But I do have to be careful – if a pain appears and I tell him, he will order a medical test that I may not want. I have to be very certain it is not a fleeting ache before I mention it, so there are times when I may not be as open, I may smile although something is hurting – I don’t speak lightly of medical issues anymore as it always ends with me in a machine!

    I guess the closest I can come to experiencing your fear/relief cycle is when I get new PET/CT/MRI results. It can be nerve-wracking for many – for me I just get butterflies right before he walks in the door. I used to need to be one of the people who knew the results instantly but now I don’t mind waiting. There are only two things I can hear: either I’m a step closer to death, or I’m holding steady. If you boil it down that way, it seems easier, for me.

    I think anybody who is still having fears long past treatment should tell their doctors, but if you repeatedly do and all they say is “Of course, it’s normal, who wouldn’t” and offer no other help, you might look into therapy on your own. At some point, it should be suggested because while we’ve all heard those stories about cancer returning 10-15 years post treatment, it is uncommon and most relapses happen within the 3 to 5 year window. At some point, a human being has to believe the danger is past, they can’t be pumping out fear cortisol levels all the time. They may have to learn some techniques to help put cancer in their past, and I would hope a doctor or medical professional can help explain the odds of relapse and suggest a method for those who need emotional help.

    Nothing wrong with some tears in the car now and then but if it’s ten years down the road than maybe there is some PTSD going on.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Ann,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I know our cancer experiences are far different. And trust me, I remember bringing up an ache to my oncologist and wound up in a machine!

      I’m grateful for my doctors because they show great empathy, and to get me through the appointment that’s all I need most of the time. I have a very strong support system (I have for years) that helps me get through the psychological obstacles.

      Everyone handles diagnosis, treatment, and cancer differently, as we know, and depression and anxiety often lingers, even if there is no evidence of disease.

      As usual, I appreciate your insightful, helpful advice and just know that I’m taking care of myself. These incidences of sobbing are just moments in a life that is rewarded mostly by happiness and contentment.

      Thank you much for your comment.


  3. Nancy's Point had this to say about that:

    I don’t know why it is that we so often try to hold back when at doctor appointments. I have done this time and time again, though I am trying to do a better job of being more open about how I’m really doing. Is it part of that “be a good girl, be a good patient” idea we’re raised with? I don’t know. I think it’s partly due to time restraints at appointments. For instance the nurse who checks me in always asks, “how are you doing?” but somehow it often feels like she really doesn’t have time to go into all the details…and it’s the same with the doctor sometimes. It’s an important topic. We have to remember that medical professionals cannot read our minds. It’s our job as the patient to speak up, even if it’s hard. Good for you for letting your “cracks” show. Terrific topic. Terrific post.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Nancy, I’m also doing a better job of trying to be honest with my doctors. Having them empathize and acknowledge what I’ve been through really helps me cement a healthy relationship with them.

      If we can’t share our fears with our doctors, then it’s difficult to have a truly authentic relationship with them.

      Thanks for your insightful comment, Nancy. I think the “be a good girl, be a good patient” concept plays a huge role in our hesitancy to speak up.

  4. FacingCancer.ca had this to say about that:

    To be honest, I can’t hide my fears. However, I never talk about my emotions with my oncologist. They are ‘out there’ (we have to fill a survey on how we feel) but to verbally express everything would just knock me into pieces. It’s not for their sake I withhold, it’s for mine. I would rather cry at home. ~Catherine

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Oh yes, I know about the survey on how we feel — the ones given to us before we see the oncologist. I get annoyed and, frankly, sometimes they add to the stress.

      Everyone has their own coping mechanism. It is difficult to express everything we are feeling to doctors, and we really don’t have to. It’s OK to withhold your emotions and cry at home. I also hide my emotions from my doctors. There’s no right way to deal with doctor’s appointments.

      Thank you for your comment.

  5. Kate, of Kate Has Cancer had this to say about that:

    I have realized that I wear my game face for my Sweetie. Every time I go to an appointment without him, all it takes is one searching look from a kind nurse for me to break down. Sometimes I think I should cry more often. It is cathartic, after all. But it is draining too. With my mother in hospital these last two months, there have been even more opportunities to crumble around the edges…like every tough cookie.

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:

      Hi Kate,

      I’m sorry about your mom’s health. That, of course, adds to the sorrow.

      It is so hard not to crumble. There’s nothing wrong with crying in front of doctors and nurses. I have cried in front of nurses, in particular.

      I think it’s sweet that you put on your game face for your loved one. It must be difficult to do this. There’s really no right and wrong way to handle doctor’s appointments. Crying during an appointment is common and completely normal.

  6. Elizabeth J. had this to say about that:

    I know exactly what you mean. This was so very relevant today!
    Today was an appointment day. So nerve-racking down inside yourself! All was good for now. My doctor even remembered to ask about my grandbaby, my volunteering. My medical team treats me like family, too. There was a medical student along this time. Even though my cancer metastasized last year, it felt good to be called “one of their successes,” because all recent scans have been clear. But then a new round of scans and tests over the next few months gets scheduled, at three months, six months, and the student is told how important it is for them to watch me so closely compared to who haven’t had a recurrence. And I keep on my “game face.”

    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      I’m so glad you have such a caring, wonderful medical team. When doctors take a personal interest in their patients’ lives (something all doctors should do), it is truly wonderful.

      I’m so glad your scans have been clear! I wish you clear scans forever. And it’s fine to keep on your game face.

  7. Ann Becker-Schutte (@DrBeckerSchutte) had this to say about that:


    Thanks for sharing the link to your post–the comments show what an important vein you’ve touched. It’s such a balancing act to negotiate between expressing yourself to get support and having the privacy of your emotions when you need that. One thing I remind my clients is that it’s okay to need different things at different times.

    Thanks for sharing your story.


    • Beth L. Gainer had this to say about that:


      Thank you so much for your comment. You are right: it is a balancing act whether to share emotions or keep them private. I’m glad I am sharing more with my doctors about how I’m feeling. I think that they appreciate it and am so glad they are listening eagerly.

  8. Pingback: Balance Roundup: 12 February 2014

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