Radical Listening: How Cancer Made Me a Better Educator

February 5, 2024
"Radical Listening: How Cancer Made Me a Better Educator"

Dr. Heather Alonge shares her experience as a cancer patient and how it made her more compassionate about the challenges adult learners face. 

Dr. Heather Alonge, MPH ’07, PhD ’13, is a faculty member in the Master of Healthcare Administration program at Walden University, an Adtalem Global Education institution.  

I will never forget that day, August 24, 2022. After undergoing a routine hysterectomy, I received an email with my electronic health record. From my chart, I learned that I had uterine sarcoma, a very rare and severe form of cancer. To say that my whole world changed is to understate.

Prior to my surgery, I felt something was seriously wrong. I knew my symptoms and the pain I felt weren’t normal. I kept asking, but I was dismissed and repeatedly told, “no, it’s not cancer.” My cancer diagnosis was considered an accidental finding. But had I been heard, it could have been diagnosed prior to the surgery, offering me a better outcome and long-term survival.

Afterward, when I received the diagnosis that it was a serious cancer, my voice still didn’t count. I went to several oncologists until I was given a treatment plan I found acceptable.

Receiving a diagnosis and treatment made me realize that sometimes it’s the simple things that matter. Radical listening is at the top of that list. Providers have to listen to patients. Now on my third oncologist, this has been a dramatic wakeup call.

 Why Listening to Patient Stories is So Important

Patient stories reveal a facet of the human being sometimes hidden behind negative electronic health record descriptions, stigmas, vital signs, lab values, insurance codes, medication lists, etc. 

They offer a more holistic view. I’m now making that a major message in my healthcare administration courses.  

Becoming a More Inclusive and Supportive Educator

As a patient, I witnessed firsthand the challenges patients face not only in communicating with their healthcare providers but navigating the whole experience. I saw how even in the small encounters—the parking lots far away from the hospital, the cattle call long waits for care, the cold metal examining tables—there are so many barriers small and large to healthcare.  

This experience taught me to be more aware of the challenges we all face and to be more inclusive and supportive of my students and their wellbeing. The lessons I learned as a patient gave me an opportunity to build better relationships with students and connect on a personal level.  

Developing Greater Empathy

As a mom of three young daughters, trying to keep working and receiving cancer treatments, I have a new appreciation for what some of my students who also have complicated lives are going through. 

I was fortunate to have a strong support network. But some of my students may not. I used to be rigid about deadlines. Now I feel connected on a deeper level with students, and I take into account challenges they may be facing. I’m much more flexible.  

Building a Community of Care

As I let go of this rigidity, I started making it more of a priority to be a support to my students and make sure they know they are not in this alone. 

Creating a community of care now means everything to me. I want them to get to know me, to grow, and to know that they matter. I am taking a whole-person approach with my students. That starts with really listening.

Most of my students are adult learners in a graduate healthcare administration program. They face all kinds of life, emotional, and health challenges themselves. One shared that she has challenges with mental health issues. Another is a colon cancer patient. I want them to know I understand some of the challenges they are going through and to tell them, “I am here to help you through this.”

I want my students to walk away from the courses I teach feeling that “Wow, someone really cared. I can take my life in this direction and be successful.”  

Building a Life of Purpose

I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anyone, but I feel it reaffirmed my purpose as a Walden University faculty member. I want to take the adversity and the lessons I’m learning through this journey to be a social transformation agent.  

I am hopeful that this can have a ripple effect. Can you imagine the impact if every provider made that a priority? It could be transformative for healthcare.