My sister and I tried to compose ourselves and comprehend the significance of what we had just heard the doctor say.
Did he just say that our mom has breast cancer?
Having worked in hospice for many years, I knew that once the word “cancer” was spoken most of what was said after was lost in translation. So I focused on being present to what the doctor was saying next. The doctor continued, “I feel from what I’ve seen that it’s stage 1 breast cancer, which means we caught it early and I am confident your mom will live a long, healthy life.”
I have encountered more doctors than I’d like to admit who share a cancer diagnosis with a patient and then abruptly walk out of the room. Our hospice team had numerous in-services for doctors titled “Breaking Bad News”, however; it was usually the staff who came, many times sharing their frustration at how their doctor does a quick “exit stage left” after dropping the C-bomb on a patient.
Having experienced this from both a professional and personal standpoint, I wanted to share some advice for when the doctor shares life changing news:
If the doctor is using terminology you don’t understand ask him what it means.
If another staff member comes in to answer questions politely ask why the doctor isn’t answering the questions and how their care team is set up. **Many times there are physician assistants who work as patient advocates and are the contact for ongoing information and support.
If you feel comfortable with the treatment option set out by the doctor then move forward with it.
However, unless it’s a time sensitive situation, you don’t have to immediately move forward with the treatment option outlined by the doctor. You have the right to ask more questions and seek a second opinion about your care.
Ask for the after-hours number to call and ask the questions that may have come up after leaving the doctor’s office. Make sure the phone number connects you with your doctor or a team member who knows about your case and has access to your records.
Do your research.
Websites like WebMD have a lot of information that can assist in understanding both diagnosis and treatment options, but clarify and verify the information you find with a doctor or other diagnosis specific medical professional.
Call around to disease specific treatment centers and ask questions about their programs.
Explore alternative/holistic treatments options that could supplement and/or support your treatment.
Get a second opinion.
There is nothing wrong with seeking a second (or even third) opinion when given a serious diagnosis.
Ask your doctor about research trials in your area that your loved one may qualify for.
Get information on other social resources and support groups offered by the hospital system. For example, my local hospital offers free massages to both the patient and their caregiver, as well as resources for free wigs, discounted mastectomy bras and programs on how to manage and reduce stress.
Focus on gathering information on available options so that you can assist your loved one in making an educated decision about their care.
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