Dealing with the Diagnosis

What to Do When You Get the News You Never Want

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Not every death is preceded by a devastating medical diagnosis, but the scenario is common enough that it’s worth considering. If possible, bring someone with you to the doctor’s office when learning about diagnosis and treatment details, especially if it seems to be getting serious. 

If not, you might wind up like my friend Ellen. She wound up sitting alone in a small, dark room, listening to the oncologist matter-of-factly report that she had breast cancer. “The doctor immediately started discussing options, and I kept thinking, ‘This can’t be happening,’” she recalled. “Part of me just went numb.”

Historically, doctors were not trained in how to deliver bad news. For years, they relied on “it’s time to get your affairs in order” as a euphemism for “your time is up.” Thankfully, medical schools have begun to teach more compassionate methods. 

Dr. Michael Galitzer, medical director of the American Health Institute in Los Angeles, believes that people never forget what doctors say in these experiences. “The words echo in their heads and hearts,” said Galitzer, who encourages doctors to be forthright and honest, but to always leave room for hope.

Other physicians disagree, because sometimes a patient doesn’t want full disclosure. Stacy Wilson’s 53-year-old husband, Jaime, died of kidney cancer eight months after his initial diagnosis. Jaime never believed he was going to die. So, toward the end, when he asked his oncologist if he’d ever drive his beloved Camaro again, the doctor replied, “Sure, we’re going to get you there.” It’s what Jaime wanted to hear, explained Wilson, and she was grateful that the doctor complied. 

Personally, I’d prefer to know the whole truth. After an initial meltdown, I’d hopefully follow the suggestions on how to deal with the bad news: go slow, learn everything you can about the disease, get a second opinion, choose a good support group, and find a doctor you trust. It’s also important to decide who you plan to tell and what not to read, which includes a lot of terrifying things and bad information you can find on the internet. Starting that meditation practice wouldn’t hurt either.

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