Communicating with Your Doctor after an Ovarian Cancer Diagnosis
by Stephanie V. Blank, MD
Of course, it’s not only women with ovarian cancer who need to consider the importance of communication with their doctor – anyone who has ever had cancer, or anyone who has ever been to the doctor, can improve their care by taking time to consider what they need and want to learn from interaction with their physician. Here, we’ll address issues specific to ovarian cancer, but many of these concepts are universal.
The First Questions
If you’ve been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, you likely have already had surgery or a biopsy to confirm this diagnosis. If you have not had surgery or a biopsy, the first questions for your doctor are, How do you know I have ovarian cancer? Have other possibilities been considered? If you have had surgery, you need to know exactly what was found, what was taken out, and what was left in. If adjuvant treatment is the next step for you, your doctor should suggest options. And you should be able to ask questions about the possible side effects of treatment and about what to expect during and after treatment.
That information exchange sounds straightforward, but it might not be. Not everyone wants to know every detail, and not every doctor will automatically discuss these details.
Your questions should be direct and clear. Don’t assume your doctor can read between the lines.
Setting the Foundation for Communication
The key to good communication with your doctor is planning. Consider what you want to learn from your doctor and what you want your doctor to learn about you.
What do you want to know? And how do you want to hear it? Do you need numbers? Many people ask for them but later find they are not especially helpful. Do you want information given with a hint of hope, with encouragement, or would you prefer to know the worst-case scenario?
Doctors are not always taught how to communicate. They tend to focus on technical matters and may not describe possible outcomes. They might not understand what you are expressing to them; it is easy for a doctor to miss the full range of your concerns.
What do you want your doctor to know? You need to think about how you speak to your doctor. Your questions should be direct and clear. Don’t assume your doctor can read between the lines. If you want to know about whether you can attend your niece’s wedding, ask about that specifically; don’t just say, “How am I doing, Doc?” It sounds simple, but it isn’t always as easy as it should be due to nerves, time pressure, an impersonal setting, different communication styles, and the rush of emotions that come over you every time you walk into that office.
Your doctor needs to know what is important to you. For example, if you are a musician, a drug that might affect your hearing and the movement of your fingers may not be the best option for you. There are other equally effective drugs without these side effects, and the more your doctor knows about you, the better your joint decision-making can be.
Preparing for Your Visit
First, select a doctor with whom you feel comfortable. Set an agenda for your appointment. Carry a list of questions with you. Try not to be in a rush. Waiting is inevitable at the doctor’s office, and once you have your doctor’s attention, you don’t want to be worried about making it to your next engagement on time.
Consider bringing another pair of ears who can also take notes. It is hard to remember everything, and being able to refer to notes is extremely helpful. Of course, select this person wisely. You need to be comfortable enough with him or her to ask your questions without worrying about what that person is thinking or feeling. Before you leave your appointment, ask your doctor for the best way to get in touch with him or her if you have additional questions.
Your care will be better if communication with your doctor is two-way. Do not be afraid to seek this. You may have to work for it, but it is worth it.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Dr. Stephanie V. Blank is an assistant professor in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the New York University Langone Medical Center in New York, NY.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2009.