Your doctor can’t read your mind

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.

In the cancer world, patients often differ on what they want to hear from their doctors.

Here are some examples:

  • Some patients want to know – in detail – the various pros and cons of every treatment option, while other patients just want to know what the doctor thinks is best.
  • Some patients want to know the survival statistics for their type of cancer, others don’t.
  • Some patients with advanced cancer want to continue aggressive treatment for as long as absolutely possible. Other patients would consider stopping treatment and focusing on quality of life even if one more treatment was possible.


Doctors often take their cues from their patients. They know better how to help you if you tell them.

This is true in terms of what you want (your wishes) and how you absorb information (how you learn). Some people learn best with diagrams, or would benefit from a follow-up discussion with a nurse or other professional. Say so. Your doctor will appreciate it and you will get better care.

And patients often change their minds during the course of their treatment. Make sure your doctor knows your current thinking.

One patient recently told me, “I wish my doctor didn’t keep suggesting treatment possibilities that we both know are unlikely to help. I’m tired and just want to be comfortable.”

But, six months earlier, this same patient told the doctor that she wanted to fight as long and as hard as possible. The doctor was taking cues from her. She had changed her mind, but didn’t tell the doctor of that change.

Much of cancer care is filled with uncertainty. One thing patients can control is being clear about what they really want. I know it’s not always easy, but, please, speak up.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.
Original publication date: March 16, 2017

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