Communicating with Your Doctor after an Ovarian Cancer Diagnosis
by Stephanie V. Blank, MD
Every doctor can write a prescription, but not every doctor is an expert at communication. It is much easier to teach anatomy and pathology than it is to teach the best way to tell a woman she has ovarian cancer. And while many physicians are born with the skills and social sense necessary to properly deliver news like this, just as many are not.
Better communication with your doctor will result in improved care and greater satisfaction with that care. Here, we will look at ways that you can take matters into your own hands.
Set the Stage for Communication
Letting your doctor know you have thought enough about communication to want to discuss it is an important first step toward improving communication between you and your doctor. If your doctor has given you your diagnosis while you’re in the exam room, ask him or her if you can dress, sit down in an office, and include your significant other in the conversation. Or if you have gotten the news but are in no shape to process it, tell your doctor that you are overwhelmed and ask when you can come back to discuss the diagnosis and what it means for your future.
The First Questions
First, find out if your doctor is a gynecologic oncologist. If not, ask if you should see one. Gynecologic oncologists are physicians who are focused on the care of women with female-specific cancers. They can perform surgery, give chemotherapy, follow you long term, and will best be able to help you make important treatment decisions.
Your questions should be direct and clear. Don’t assume your doctor can read between the lines.
If your doctor recommends chemotherapy or radiation, what does this mean for you? Can you go to work? Go to the gym? Travel? Have sex? Your doctor can clear up any misconceptions you might have. If there are activities or upcoming events that are very important to you, voice this to your doctor. It might be possible to tailor your treatment to fit your needs.
You may want to ask your doctor about clinical trials. Often, your best chance of being eligible for clinical trials is before you start treatment. If your doctor does not have a trial for you but you are interested in learning more, ask your doctor’s opinion on whether he or she knows of any other trials out there that you should consider.
There is a natural tendency for many of us to want to be “good patients” and not complain. When your doctor asks how you’re doing, you may feel inclined to reply with, “Just fine.” This is a common exchange between doctors and women undergoing ovarian cancer treatment, but they both know this answer isn’t true. Let your doctor know if you’re experiencing troubling side effects. Your visit will go more smoothly if your doctor doesn’t have to tease out of you that you haven’t gone to the bathroom since your last treatment.
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 whether you can attend a wedding, ask about that specifically; don’t just ask, “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. You may feel silly talking to your doctor about your social calendar, but your doctor would like nothing more than to alleviate your stress with a definitive answer.
You will likely receive more satisfaction from your care if communication with your doctor is two-way. Don’t be afraid to seek this type of communication. You may have to work for it, but it is worth it.
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Dr. Stephanie Blank, a gynecologic oncologist, is an associate professor at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, NY. She is chair of the Communications Committee of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology and strives to make sure that the women under her care believe they can communicate with her.
This article addresses issues specific to ovarian cancer, but many of these concepts are universal.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2013.