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How to handle a difficult diagnosis

female and doctor

There are some things we all hope we’ll never hear – such as the word ‘cancer’ in connection with ourselves or someone we love.  It is never easy to receive any difficult diagnosis.  But what you do next can have a big impact on how well you manage your condition and your life after the doctor delivers the bad news.

We’ve all seen the cartoons of characters covering their ears with their hands and singing, “La, La, La,” as loud as they can when someone starts to say something they don’t want to hear. Hearing a difficult diagnosis can cause the same kind of reaction – without the cartoon consequences.  It’s natural to experience shock, horror, and a sense of “Why me?” when we hear a diagnosis of cancer or any other serious or potentially fatal condition.  

The first reaction many of us will have is denial.  We think that it can’t be true or just want the doctor to make it go away.  Unfortunately, receiving bad news is only the first step in the journey toward healing that often includes many difficult and potentially life-changing decisions.  As a health advocate, the first thing I recommend after hearing this kind of news is to do nothing.  You heard me right.  Do nothing. Don’t try to jump into action or chose a specialist or schedule surgery immediately after hearing the news (unless your doctor insists that immediate treatment is a life or death concern).

Receiving bad news seems to flip a switch in our brains that turns everything off.  You hear the key word – like cancer – and that’s the last thing you remember.  So if you find yourself alone when you receive bad news, my advice is to end the conversation right there. You won’t remember anything the doctor tells you after that one piece of news, so you are better off not even trying to talk it through right then.  Cut the visit short and schedule another appointment to discuss the details. The best doctors will make sure you have someone with you when they deliver this kind of news.  But even then, you’ll need to come back to talk it through.  There is too much to take in at one time and you’ll need to hear it for yourself, even if your companion recalls perfectly what was said.

I also recommend that you take someone with you to any doctor’s visit where you are going to talk about your options or make big decisions. You need – and deserve – that support from someone who will listen with you and be able to have an informed discussion with you after you leave the office.

You may wonder why I say, “Do nothing.” With most conditions like cancer, the disease has been in your body for a while before you found out it was there.  While it’s normal to just want it gone, taking a few days or weeks to think about the diagnosis, do your own research, and get a second opinion probably won’t hurt you and can have a definite positive effect on your ability to make clear-headed, informed decisions.

I can’t emphasize enough the value of a second, or third (or even fourth) opinion.  We are all just human, so even the most brilliant doctor has the potential to miss something or make a mistake.  Beyond that possibility, getting more than one opinion will help clear up any doubts you may have about whether the condition is real.  Another opinion also means you will hear the diagnosis stated in a different way, which may help you understand things that were not clear to you the first time.  Also, talking to more than one doctor may mean a broader selection of possible treatments if there are options available that your first doctor did not present to you.

Being your own best advocate sometimes means stepping back from the decision and giving yourself time to think.  You can put yourself back in control of the situation by allowing yourself to take the time to learn more about the condition and your treatment options before you make a life-changing decision.

Michelle King Robson (pronounced robe-son) is one of the nation's leading women's health and wellness advocates. She is the Founder, Chairperson and CEO of EmpowHER, one of the fastest-growing and largest social health companies dedicated exclusively to women's health and wellness.  In 2011 EmpowHER reached more than 60 million women onsite and through syndication expects to reach more than 250 million in 2012.