Headlines & Helpful Information, Research
By: Susan G. Komen
By Jennifer Polo, Komen Breast Care Helpline Specialist
Diagnostic mammograms, breast ultrasounds, needle biopsies – these are just a few tests a woman may have if there is any question whether she has breast cancer. When dealing with such a scary situation, it’s important for the patient and doctor to share three things with each other: trust, respect and comfort.
Sadly, comfort is exactly what many people are missing in their relationships with their doctors. When someone feels comfortable with her doctor, it creates an environment of open communication and honesty, allowing the patient to feel empowered by information, not fearful.
I spoke with a woman named Maria who was in the emergency room after noticing changes in her breast, coupled with extreme breast pain. She had gone through the wringer, meeting with various doctors, having her blood drawn and going through tests she did not understand.
I called her back the following day to check on her and she was still in the hospital. She’d had a diagnostic mammogram, a breast ultrasound and was having blood drawn every few hours. Her doctor also mentioned doing a biopsy.
In an effort to understand, I asked about her results. “What have they told you so far?” “Why are they keeping you in the hospital?”
She couldn’t answer any of my questions. She was too scared to ask her doctor what was going on, or to question the tests she was having.
The incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking thing to me is this scenario isn’t uncommon, and it’s understandable. Things tend to move quickly when in a hospital setting. There are a lot of conversations happening and new terms being thrown around. Many people report they feel like their heads are swirling.
People worry they might appear dumb if they ask questions, or are inconveniencing a very busy doctor. Often, they are just too scared to hear the answers to their lingering questions.
As a result, we’ve seen cases where women leave their doctor’s office unaware of even the most basic information – the type or stage of breast cancer they have.
For two years I worked at the Komen breast care helpline, and it felt like I couldn’t say it enough: No matter who you are or what you are feeling or facing, you have the right to know what is happening to you. It’s OK to ask questions when you are confused, uncertain or don’t understand something. Even if you trust your doctor, you should still feel free to ask – even if the answers scare you. Being informed is one of the best ways to help ensure you’ll get good medical care.
Here are some tips from those who have been there:
To the extent you can (and this wasn’t possible for Maria in the emergency room, but was later), write down a list of questions. Such as, why is the doctor recommending this test for me?
Many people bring a friend or loved one with them to listen to the doctor and ask questions themselves. You’d be surprised how often a “buddy” hears information that the patient doesn’t, and vice versa. Compare notes later.
And if you feel like you don’t even know what to ask, don’t worry. There’s a lot of new information and jargon, and it can be hard to figure out how to get started. That’s why Komen created the “Questions to Ask Your Doctor” series, covering topics like diagnosis, treatment options, treatment side effects and many others.
After we spoke, Maria felt prepared with her list of questions, and thankful for the confidence she was given to talk open and honestly with her doctor.
That’s how I hope everyone will feel when speaking with her doctor – empowered and informed.
And if you need a little help getting there, don’t hesitate to call the Komen helpline with any questions. The number is 1-877 GO KOMEN (1-877-465-6636). Trained and caring staff are available to assist you Monday - Friday, from 9 a.m. – 10 p.m. ET.
**Jennifer has taken her experience working at the Komen Breast Care Helpline and is currently furthering her education in the medical field.
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