Don’t Go Alone

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

It’s important to have someone with you at doctor’s appointments when you’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis. I’ve written in the past that people often experience a brain freeze when they are first diagnosed. They hear little after the doctor says, “I’m sorry, you have cancer.”

For some people, though, the issue is more of selective hearing. That is, they hear only what their brains are ready to hear.

Here are a couple of examples:

The doctor says, “I highly recommend that you undergo chemotherapy for your cancer because it will significantly reduce your risk of a recurrence.” The patient replies, “I don’t want chemotherapy and you can’t force me to have it.”

The doctor says, “Of course I won’t force you to do anything against your will. It’s ultimately your decision and I will support you in whatever you decide.”

The patient later reports to her family that, “The doctor said I don’t need to have chemotherapy.”

While that may be technically correct, it’s not an accurate representation of what the doctor said.

Another scenario is when the doctor tells patients that their cancers are treatable. What patients often hear is that their cancers are curable. There’s a world of difference between those two words.

I know about these situations because I see them on a regular basis. Sometimes I’ll accompany patients to doctor’s appointments so I know exactly what the doctor said. But when the patient recounts the conversation afterwards, it’s apparent that they misheard or misinterpreted what the doctor said.

I suspect that this may be a rational coping mechanism. You can only handle so much complicated information – or so much bad news – at a time. I think we prime our brains to hear the words that we want to hear.

That’s why it’s helpful to have someone with you in that exam room to remind you later, “The doctor did say that you don’t have to have chemotherapy, but she is recommending it for you.”

My hope is that people make informed treatment decisions when they are as clear-headed as possible. For most of us, that’s after we leave the doctor’s office. That extra set of ears will help.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here to see all of Bob’s Columns

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