Homeless cancer patient who ‘hates hospitals’ undergoes treatment
Kevin McClure may come across as gruff, but when you dig deeper you’ll discover there’s a reason: he’s had a rough life with a lot of painful losses.
McClure has lost his mother, brother and sister to cancer. He was chronically homeless until recently. And he went through treatment for head and neck cancer himself at MultiCare Regional Cancer Center at Tacoma General Hospital.
McClure, 66, didn’t want to undergo treatment.
“I hate hospitals,” McClure says. “But I did it.”
Mary Milton, an oncology social worker who worked closely with McClure before, during and after his treatment, admits McClure’s situation was challenging. He had unique barriers to successful treatment, including homelessness, low income and a history of alcohol abuse.
Plus, his prickly nature and distrust in the medical system meant he wasn’t always willing to stick around.
“There were times at the beginning when he just said ‘[Forget] it, I’m out,’ and he would leave,” Milton says. “Head and neck cancer treatment is one of the toughest to endure and he had a very limited support network to lean on.”
Milton and others on her team worked together to make McClure feel welcome and accepted. They made him instant soups to enjoy during infusions; talked to him about his favorite author when they learned he was a voracious reader; and used charity funds to purchase him nutrition supplements when he had trouble swallowing.
Because McClure was homeless when he began treatment, MultiCare social worker Kristen Smith helped him get into an assisted living facility.
On top of that, the team communicated about the best ways to respond to McClure’s acerbic nature, and would remain calm and patient when his anxiety would get the best of him, Milton says. Over time the team learned to understand McClure’s coping mechanisms and respond to them without reacting negatively or being judgmental.
“We were proud of you because you didn’t trust us, but you got treatment anyway,” Milton reminds McClure on a recent visit.
“I told you I would, and I did,” he replies. “And it made me more tolerant.”
“You did great,” Milton says.
“I didn’t harass ‘em too bad,” he jokes. “I harass everybody. That’s my job.”
In an email to her team at the end of McClure’s treatment, Milton wrote:
“When [Kevin] started treatment I know we were a little trepidatious about how he would do. The coping skills Kevin uses to survive on the streets do not serve him well in a medical clinic setting. Yet all of you worked together to provide a supportive, non-judgmental and welcoming space for him. I noticed his agitation decreased with each interaction. Kevin has completed treatment and now occasionally drops by just to say ‘hi’ and ‘thank you.’ What a difference from when he first started treatment and would frequently say ‘I hate coming here.’”
McClure still faces challenges — difficulty swallowing, difficulty maintaining a healthy weight and low self-esteem. And after discovering his cancer had come back, he decided to transition to hospice and focus on symptom management and his quality of life rather than further treatment in hopes of extending his life.
“Wish I felt better,” he admits. “I don’t like to look at my own body.”
That’s part of the struggle for a lot of cancer patients, says Milton. You get treatment and you want to feel better and be ‘healed,’ go back to how you felt before the cancer, but it doesn’t always happen that way. There’s a lot of hard work and adjusting to the reality that the cancer may return.
“Kevin is a good example of different ways people ‘heal,’” Milton says. “In his case, part of the healing that occurred was around his ability to engage with the medical team and allow us to help him live his life with cancer the way that worked best for him.”
About The Author
Roxanne Cooke is our senior content editor and manages Vitals, Kite Strings and Bring Happy Back, plus special projects such as 24 Hours at Tacoma General Hospital and The Healthy Futures Project. She tells stories in words, photos and video. You can reach her at [email protected]More stories by this author