Talking to doctors
There is no easy way to tell someone that they have cancer. However, many people describe their cancer experience as life-changing and the way in which they are told can have a powerful impact on their state of mind, coping ability and future relationship with their medical team.
Some women said they were glad they had been told their diagnosis in a straightforward manner. Others described the way their doctor had told them their diagnosis as blunt but in hindsight felt it was probably the best way to break the news. One woman wanted her doctor to be more direct with her. Many women were alone when they were told they had cancer.
She would have preferred her doctor to have told her her diagnosis in a straightforward manner.
And when he told you your diagnosis, what was, would have been the best way for you?
Well I suppose it's a bit abrupt just to sit you down and say 'Yes you've got cancer,' but probably that way, rather than sort of making it sound something that it isn't.
People react in different ways when they are told they have cancer. One woman described how, because she didn't react as he had expected when he gave her the result that her cancer was advanced, the consultant seemed to feel he had to keep repeating it until she showed the expected reaction.
She explains how she felt when her doctor did not realise that she had understood her diagnosis.
Which I was really upset about actually because I ended up being in such a state crying that I thought it was really out of order. Actually I think that was one of my negative things actually about my experience that I think doctors have got to be very careful about, about talking to patients about things like that. Because everybody deals with things very, very differently and just because somebody isn't crying doesn't mean that they haven't taken something in or absorbed it. I mean I'm not a stupid person, I am, you know I know people that have had cancer and I do understand a bit about it. So you know he rather upset me actuallly.
Communication between doctors and their patients can profoundly affect how patients cope with their illness. A woman who felt exceptionally well cared for describes the friendly and approachable manners of her medical team helped her to feel positive during her recovery in hospital. Another described feeling confident in her surgeon's judgment because he answered all her questions and gave her lots of information.
Her medical team's attitude helped her feel positive during her recovery in hospital.
In contrast, one woman describes how she felt about the insensitivity shown to her by a doctor at the cancer clinic. Another said her consultants had made personal comments to her had led her to feel uncomfortable at future appointments.
The insensitivity shown to her by a doctor on her first visit to the cancer clinic affected her...
But what happened was the doctor came in, it wasn't the doctor who I'd been told I'd be seeing, my card said one name, this person had another name. It wasn't explained to me why that was um, I was asked to tell my story from the beginning and the doctor was interrupted twice with bleeper messages and without even saying 'Excuse me,' sort of took the messages, so just cut off my story as if it was not that important.
So I was very vulnerable but I think, when I was thinking about it afterwards I thought they should have been aware of that. They didn't seem to be aware that I'd just come out of one hospital straight into another. If I'd been coming from home and hadn't had surgery I would have been feeling a lot different I think and I probably would have said 'Do you mind! Are you gonna listen to this or not?' But as it was I was just oh, oh, sort of um, felt awful. So of course I just felt so resentful that this particular clinic had just wiped out probably a good week of work that another hospital had just done.
I block it out of my mind because I think that was one bad experience that I took very kind of badly. If I was to tell that person they probably would see what, what I meant but probably its just such an everyday occurrence for them that it becomes numb to them so they probably just wouldn't have realised that, how I felt. Um, so I do try to keep it under control because I don't want that particular place to become a kind of a, a phobia you know because it can happen. Um, you know that sticks in my mind.
She felt that consultants should be able to be friendly but was made uncomfortable by personal...
Decision-making about treatment could be made easier or more difficult according to the manner of communication. One woman explains how the open communication between herself and her medical team had helped her to decide to have a trachelectomy (where the womb (uterus) is left in place so it’s still possible to have a baby).
Her decision to have a trachelectomy was helped by the positive communication with her medical team.
Many women said it had made a considerable difference when doctors or nurses explained procedures during tests and treatments. In comparison, one woman had experienced unnecessary distress because she had not been told why she needed to sign a form during her radiotherapy planning session.
She felt reassured by the way her doctor communicated with her.
Not being given an explanation for why she needed to sign a form caused her unnecessary distress.
Because I think when you're having an operation you just say "Oh we're going to take this tooth out and you're signing for the anaesthetic," but er they couldn't be bothered. And I'm not just a piece of meat, I know people often say that expression with doctors and surgeons that they see you as just a lump of a body there, that they're going to do something to. But it's such a big massive important thing in my life that I didn't just want to just sign this yellow form.
But I'd caused so much upset, I'd upset myself, I'd upset my husband, I'd upset my daughter because I wouldn't sign it. But you know I just felt I wasn't going to be bullied that afternoon by this doctor. When he was treating me wrong it was sort of, I suppose the upset and everything got hold of me, but I didn't actually tell him off or call his superior, I just refused to sign it and said I wanted to go home and started crying (laughs).
Communication between doctors and their patients can reduce or increase patient's concerns about ailments following treatment for cancer. Several women stressed that doctors should listen to and address these concerns and recognise that what may seem trivial to a doctor may create anxiety in the patient until it is fully explained.
She comments that doctors should address their patients fears about ailments following treatment...
Rather than just say "Don't worry about it, its just one of those things cancer patients always worry about getting it again," for me it would be making sure, and making sure that they checked up on it. So if for example I didn't ever get an understanding of why the muscle had gone from above my belly button until I actually discovered two other women that had got exactly the same. And my understanding is it's where the muscles have come apart and there's a diverifaction. It's actually you know a side effect from having a baby. And I kept those worries inside for quite some time.
So instead of the consultant just saying "Don't worry about it," I'd have liked for him to have double checked or just for him to just given me the peace of mind of going to a physiotherapist or somebody who would have an understanding of why that part of my body had changed because it would have meant quite a big difference to me for the next couple of years and I might not have kept back some of the information later on when I'd got pain. And who knows had that been something else that probably wouldn't have been a positive thing to do at all.
So I think if consultants can sort of just be patient with the fact that I know they see the fear and they understand that they're probably very unnecessary fears it's definitely far better from the patient's perspective to have those fears answered and tested. Even if it is literally "Just let me double check, no that seems absolutely fine," would have been enough to reassure.
Last reviewed July 2017.
Last updated April 2014.