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How Should You Talk With Your Doctor About Cancer?

Posted on March 17, 2015 by Kelly Wolford
female nurse stock photo

Miscommunication between a doctor and patient is one of many factors that can lead to a delayed or missed diagnosis of cancer.

In some cases, a doctor may not listen as a patient describes symptoms. In other cases, patients may not communicate with their doctor particular symptoms or health issues they are experiencing because they do not understand or recognize its significance. This may lead to the failure to order timely tests.

A breakdown in communication can also lead a cancer patient to misunderstand his or her prognosis, or the likely course that the disease will take.

This miscommunication carries serious consequences as well. If a patient doesn’t know what lies ahead, it may lead the patient to make poor decisions that negatively impact his or her physical, emotional and financial health.

Why Does Miscommunication Occur Between Doctors, Cancer Patients

The American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that, in 2015, there will be:

1,658,370 new cases of cancer diagnosed in the U.S.

107,840 cases diagnosed in New York State alone.

As a recent National Public Radio (NPR) story notes, many of these diagnosed patients will leave the doctor’s office without a good grasp of how the cancer will impact their lives, including how long they may have to survive.

A study published in 2008 in The Journal of Clinical Oncology found that factors such as a patient’s age, type of prognosis and amount of information they are told can all be factors that contribute to misunderstanding.

For example, the study found that older patients tend to struggle when they receive a lot of information. Patients who receive a poor prognosis tend to forget information the doctor provides. This may be because they “tune out” the doctor after hearing the bad news.

The NPR story notes that doctors can contribute to patients’ failure to understand their prognosis. For example, NPR points to a study published in 2000 in BMJ that analyzed the survival estimates given to 468 terminally ill hospice patients in the Chicago area. Out of those 468 predictions:

patient-pie-chart

In other words, doctors gave an accurate prognosis to only 1 in 5 patients. They led most patients to believe they had much longer to live than they actually did.

What You Can Ask After a Cancer Diagnosis

When you are diagnosed with cancer, you need information that will help you to make important choices. These decisions will impact your treatment, your work, your family and other matters.

For example, will you quit working while going through treatment such as chemotherapy or will you try to press on at your job?

This is why it is important to ask the doctor after a cancer diagnosis about all three possible scenarios – worst-case, best-case and most-likely case – and to make sure that you have a firm understanding of all three possible outcomes.

Additionally, the ACS provides an excellent list of questions patients should ask their doctors after being diagnosed with cancer. Many of these questions can help you to understand your prognosis, including:

checklist

As the ACS notes, it may take more than one visit with the doctor in order for you to get the answers – and the clarity – you need to move on. In other words, never hesitate to ask your doctor until the picture is completely clear for you.

If you believe that you have suffered harm due to a doctor’s failure to effectively communicate your cancer diagnosis or prognosis, you should take immediate steps to protect your legal rights as well by contacting an experienced attorney.