Category Archives: cancer doctor-patient relationship

Five Tips for Communicating with Your Oncologist

Know Your Rights

You have a right to be treated with dignity and respect by hospital staff and by all members of your oncology team. Every cancer patient should be provided with complete and accurate information regarding their condition, including their prognosis. The medical professionals heading your cancer care team have a responsibility to explain your diagnosis, treatment options and other information in clear understandable terms.

Ultimately you have a right to be an active participant in your treatment plan, it’s your disease and your body. It’s your right to either consent to treatment or refuse a procedure suggested by your oncologist. For example, you can refuse to sign a consent form if you feel everything hasn’t been explained clearly or you can cross out part of a consent form that you don’t want applied to your care. However, remember that if you do refuse a treatment your oncologist is required to explain to you the medical consequences of your decision.

Doctor's Touch

 

Recognize Your Responsibilities

It’s 2017 and it’s your responsibility to be active in your care and to advocate for yourself. Just a generation or two ago doctors were like gods in white coats, you didn’t dare question their authority and the fact that they had graduated from medical school meant that they were in control of the decision making. Patients are no longer passive or expected to behave like children or second-class citizens in a doctor-patient relationship. Today, the treatment of cancer and other life-threatening diseases is a collaborative process. You should do your best to be well informed and to ascertain the benefits and risks of each procedure or treatment offered to you.

Many cancer patients, including myself, have discovered that the level of responsibility put on us is quite high. We are responsible for adhering to a complex treatment regimen proposed by our oncology team. Treatment as an outpatient generally includes chemotherapy, radiation and regular follow-up appointments. Keeping track of all these scheduled procedures, medications and other detailed instructions can sometimes make an individual feel overwhelmed. If this happens, don’t be afraid to ask for help or to inform your family and your professional cancer care team.

 

Come Prepared

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer, chances are your mind is spinning and you have literally dozens of questions that you feel you need to ask your oncologist. Where do you begin and how do you best prepare for an appointment? I recommend composing a list of questions and placing the ones that you think are the most important fist. As a patient, you’re entitled to ask your health care providers anything, in that sense, there are no right or wrong questions. However, being prepared will help you get more out of your interaction with your health care providers.

Here are a few of the most essential questions that you might need to go over with members of your oncology team.

Can we please review the next step in the plan?
Why are we doing these tests?
Why am I receiving this treatment?
What are the side effects of this medication?
How effective is the treatment?
Please explain how the treatment will help.
Why do you think that this is the best treatment for me?

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Acknowledge That Doctors Are Human

When talking with your oncologist, you should always remember that you’re dealing with a human being, doctors are not gods or saints. Yes, they have specialized medical knowledge and unique and difficult to acquire skills, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes or feel emotions. Studies have revealed that anxiety and depression are equally prevalent in the medical profession as in the general population and more worryingly, addiction and suicide rates are actually higher than the general population.

Physicians are still cultured to show no weakness, that vulnerability is a sign of incompetence. Although medical professionals encourage patients to seek help, admitting that they themselves sometimes encounter physical or emotional issues can be seen as a character flaw. Remember that your oncologist is a human being in a highly demanding and extremely stressful profession.

 

Value Honesty

Even before my cancer diagnosis five and a half years ago I understood that honesty is one of the central features of the doctor-patient relationship and that without honesty there can be no trust.

Still, doctors have this nasty habit of asking a lot of questions. Many of their inquiries make us uncomfortable or self-conscious, so we sometimes bluff. Here are a few of the most common issues that patients are dishonest about.

Many patients lie about the medications they are taking and whether they are taking them as prescribed.
Some patients are deceitful about whether they smoke.
Patients are often hesitant to discuss how much alcohol they consume.
People will often tell their doctor that they exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet, but not adhere to these practices.
Occasionally a cancer patient will lie when they experience pain or other possible symptoms of recurrence in the hope that their oncologist won’t find anything wrong.

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Hospitals: Are They Still Places for the Sick to Get Well?

I suppose I’m incredibly lucky, having never been admitted to a hospital as an overnight patient until a few years ago. Inevitably like many cancer survivors I’ve undergone an unhappy transformation, I’ve been transformed from a hospital newbie into an experienced pro. Now that I’ve completed active treatment for ovarian and uterine cancer, I can boast approximately 70 days of my life spent looking at the world from a hospital bed. It’s no wonder that I was almost brought to tears recently while reading an article by André Picard, the Globe and Mail’s public health reporter. Picard nailed it perfectly in his recent article Taking patient-centred health care from rhetoric to reality.

“So, what do patients dislike about being in the health system – aside from being sick, of course? A number of things: the helplessness; the feeling of anonymity; the discontinuity of care; the rote and the repetition; being talked about and talked to, rather than talked with; the waiting; and the loneliness.”

This epitomizes my experience as a cancer patient in so many ways and it also hints at what I believe are the limitations of most Canadian hospitals.

 

What Hospitals Are Not

During my cancer surgeries I often felt an urgent need to leave the hospital and go home, I never felt relaxed or like I could take my time to heal. These days, it may be easier to define hospitals by what they are not. They are not places for the sick to get well, not unless healing takes place in the brief interval of time that makes the stay a compensated expense. My hospital treatment was primarily covered by Alberta’s universal health insurance, but I needed my personal Blue Cross insurance plan as well. Through it all I was aware that hospital beds in Alberta cost around $1000 per day and that those beds are in limited supply.

I watched as some short-term stay patients were relegated to the hallway due to the unavailability of rooms. It was a reminder of how drastically the situation for patients and their families has changed in the past couple of decades. Once hospitals were where you stayed when you were too sick to survive at home; now you go home anyway, cobbling together your own nursing services from friends, relatives and drop-in professionals.

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The Foothills Hospital in Calgary is one of Canada’s largest medical facilities.

 

Turn Down the Noise

Like overcrowding the noise level in most hospitals has grown considerably worse over the past several decades. Dr. Brian Goldman recently discussed this topic in a blog post titled Hospitals bring down ‘da noise. Since 1960, the average daytime noise level in hospitals has gone up 200 per cent. Over the same period, the noise level at night has gone up 400 per cent. The World Health Organization says that for optimal health, the noise level in a patient’s room should be no higher than 35 decibels during the day, and 30 decibels at night. That’s the level of quiet conversation. In spite of these guidelines a 2012 study by researchers at The Ottawa Hospital found that the noise level on one unit averaged 76 decibels, that’s the noise level of a vacuum cleaner.

My personal experience gives an even more graphic example. At one point I had the misfortune of being hospitalized during some construction on the gynecologic oncology unit. Many staff members were apologetic and upset by the constant racket that we all had to endure. There were times when it sounded like a jackhammer and the noise levels had to be over 100 decibels. I believe that these circumstances were detrimental to my health and curtailed my ability to rest or heal properly. Actually, several studies have confirmed that excessive noise or disturbed sleep affects the immune system and delays recovery from major surgery.

 

Hello My Name Is

The medical professionals that I’ve encountered have all been competent, but what is often lacking is a sense that I’m a unique human being and not just a numbered chart or an illness to be discussed. British doctor Kate Granger recently passed away from cancer, but before she died she drew global attention to the impersonal care that patients in hospitals often receive. When Granger entered the hospital, her greatest anguish came from the fact that she was not treated as a person, but as an object on which tasks were performed. “I just couldn’t believe the impersonal nature of care, and how people seemed to be hiding behind their anonymity,” she recalled. Dr. Granger noted that, when people introduced themselves, it was comforting and made her feel safer and more like a person than an illness.

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Dr. Kate Granger left an important legacy.

While facing her own terminal cancer, Granger launched a spontaneous “Hello my name is” campaign urging health professionals to introduce themselves to patients. More than 400,000 staffers with the National Health Service in England have embraced the philosophy, and there are offshoots in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, the United States and Canada. Meanwhile the campaign is still gaining momentum on social media, the hashtag #hellomynameis has been used more than one billion times.

 

 

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Relying on the Web: What Cancer Patients Should Know

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I entered a psychological realm where wanting to know everything about the disease alternated with fear and aversion. Numb and in shock, I would often read over my three-page pathology report, using various websites to meticulously research the strange and frightening terminology it contained.

I’m not alone in feeling this way or in turning to the Internet for help. Nearly half of all Canadian adults are asking questions about cancer, and most turn first to the web for information. The problem is that this self-research is leaving many cancer patients confused, overwhelmed and stressed out. Although we tend to use the Internet as our first resource, most of us don’t have strong faith in the information that it provides.

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According to a new survey commissioned by the Canadian Cancer Society, when it comes to getting definitive cancer information, doctors and healthcare professionals are trusted by 94 per cent of Canadians. In spite of that only eight per cent of Canadians contacted their healthcare team first with questions. Similarly, cancer organizations and charities are trusted by 87 per cent of those seeking information, but less than five per cent of Canadians searching for cancer information reached out to them. People are more skeptical of online sources with only 69 per cent trusting the information. Despite their uncertainty, 85 per cent of people with cancer questions first turned to a search engine.

Why do Canadians so frequently consult the web for information about cancer if they place more confidence in their oncologist and organizations such as the Canadian Cancer Society? According to the survey, convenience is an issue. While the web is easily accessible, more than half of respondents said it is challenging to get time to speak with their healthcare team. But ease of use comes with unexpected side effects. Two-thirds of Internet users felt overwhelmed with information, and 62 per cent felt stressed out and worried, jumping to 70 per cent among Canadians 18 to 34.

There are several alternatives to randomly searching the web that I would strongly recommend.

Use Only Reliable Internet Sites

My cancer facility, the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary, provides patients with a list of recommend websites. Here are a few of the most essential ones.

American Cancer Society
Canadian Cancer Society
National Cancer Institute
CancerNet
Oncolink

Use The Canadian Cancer Society’s Cancer Information Service

IMG_0117Since 1996, the Canadian Cancer Society has answered 1,250,000 questions through its Cancer Information Service. The Society’s toll-free bilingual Cancer Information Service can be reached at 1-888-939-3333. Assistance is available to cancer patients, caregivers, the general public and healthcare professionals. An information specialist will take all the time you need to answer your questions and provide you with information on the following topics:

  • cancer treatment and side effects
  • clinical trials
  • coping with cancer
  • emotional support services
  • prevention
  • help in the community
  • complementary therapies

The Canadian Cancer Society’s phone line is available during business hours Monday to Friday. You should also note that when you contact the Cancer Information Service for help, your privacy is protected and you will not be asked for donations or put on a mailing list.

Access Support Organizations for Your Specific Cancer Type

Instead of randomly searching the Internet try connecting with an organization that specializes in providing support to individuals with your type of cancer. For example, staff in Ovarian Cancer Canada’s regional offices are available to answer your questions and to provide support via telephone or email. Ovarian Cancer Canada hosts webinars, workshops and events that are relevant to women living with the disease. You can also listen to various educational recordings on their YouTube channel.

Finally, Ovarian Cancer Canada offers a comprehensive guide to support and inform women who have been newly diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The publication is called By Your Side and printed copies of this resource are provided free of charge across Canada. You can Order By Your Side by filling out an online form or by calling 1-877-413-7970 (toll free).

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A Matter of Trust

trust-brokenEven before my cancer diagnosis three years ago I understood that trust is one of the central features of the patient-physician relationship. Ideally when I come under a physician’s care I should trust in my doctor’s competency and in their commitment to me as a patient. When I undergo medical treatment I must also trust my physician or surgeon to put my welfare above his or her own self-interest. Ethically my physician should always place my needs above obligations to other groups and advocate for my welfare.

This bond of trust has played a dominant role throughout my cancer journey, especially when I’ve undergone major surgery or consented to treatments such as chemotherapy. I met my oncologist in November 2011 and I continue to trust in his medical expertise and sound judgment when it comes to treating my disease. I know he and other members of the team at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre have placed my best interests before anything else. Still I regret to say that there was a critical point during my cancer treatment when I began to have irrational doubts about my surgeon and his medical colleagues.

Doctor's Touch

Looking back, several factors were instrumental in causing me to temporality lose confidence in my surgeon. In the spring of 2012 complications arose due to my cancer treatments. Two previous surgeries had resulted in scarring and adhesion of my bowel and at the time the blockage was probably being exacerbated by the chemotherapy I was undergoing. I was terrified of what might happen and despondent about my situation when I ended up a patient on the genealogic oncology unit for the third time. I was admitted through the emergency department and I could sense that my situation was extremely serious or potentially life-threatening. Worst of all I was in a tremendously weakened physical condition and my psychological state could best be described as anxious and confused.

My trust in my surgeon began to deteriorate due to communication issues. While he is a highly skilled oncological surgeon, like many doctors he is not strong when it comes to exercising interpersonal communication skills. He rarely spoke to me or came by my room—we never really had a conversation to reassure me or to discuss my condition in detail. Instead it was typically surgical residents completing their 7 a.m. rounds that I saw for a few minutes each morning. In about the second or third week of being confined to a hospital bed with orders not to consume food my fear and imagination began to run out of control. Was my surgeon really qualified and capable? Had he played any role in creating the serious complications I was now facing?

Meanwhile, some family members and other non-medically trained individuals only increased these suspicions and fears. They suggested that perhaps I should not trust my surgeon and that I should try to get another specialist to operate on my bowel blockage. As the scheduled date for my surgery approached I became virtually obsessed with how vulnerable I was and how I would be literally placing my life in my surgeon’s hands.

Surgical-Instruments

I had previously trusted my surgeon and thought of him as a conscientious and vigilant medical practitioner, now I had almost convinced myself that he might be the opposite. Was he a cowboy? As explained in Dr. Brian Goldman’s book The Secret Language of Doctors cowboy is a slang term to describe a surgeon who is excessively reckless or careless with patients. In the bestseller a cowboy is described as someone who rides by the seat of his pants. It’s someone who kind of does things quickly. They’re trying hurriedly to do everything in a somewhat haphazard fashion, hoping like hell it all comes together at the end. Cowboy is also used to refer to a surgeon who perhaps doesn’t have the best judgment—someone who operates first and asks questions later.

Of course there were moments when I had nagging doubts that I could endure another surgery, I had just been through two major operations. This had made me all too familiar with the overwhelming physical and emotional impact that abdominal cancer surgery has on a woman. In essence I agree with Dr. Goldman’s opinion regarding the consequences of surgery.

The thing I find many surgeons fail to appreciate is that an operation is a form of controlled violence on the patient. If surgeons thought about what they do to patients on a daily basis, I suspect many wouldn’t do it. Even the most successful surgery causes severe (albeit manageable) pain. For patients relieved of their condition, post-operative pain is bearable—but not so much when the surgery results in complications or worse.

Brian Goldman, The Secret Language of Doctors

Finally on June 18, 2012, I signed the appropriate documents and critical surgery was skillfully performed. When I awoke in the recovery room I sensed that my crisis was at last resolved. Although only half-conscious, I was filled with elation as they informed me that the procedure to correct my obstruction had been successful. The primary cause was established to be scar tissue from my previous operations and now my digestive system was expected to function normally again. Most of all, I was comforted and reassured by the fact that my ovarian cancer had not visibly metastasized to other organs in my body. After a long, tumultuous journey my fundamental trust in my surgeon had ultimately been restored.

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Living With the Risk of Recurrence

For me personally, the greatest stress of living with cancer has involved making difficult medical decisions regarding my course of treatment. There is also the constant pressure of waiting for outcomes that I cannot completely control. When I was diagnosed with endometrial and ovarian cancer in late 2011, I was referred to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre where my case was reviewed by the Gynecologic Oncology Tumour Board. This team of doctors and specialized pathologists reviews all new referrals to ensure correct diagnosis and to recommend the best treatment plan. Almost instantly I became the patient of one of Western Canada’s most renowned pelvic cancer surgeons, Dr. Prafull Ghatage. I’ll never forget our first encounter with Dr. Ghatage, as my mother and I sat in stunned silence, he calmly explained that I required surgery as soon as possible. This news was overwhelming, especially since I had just undergone a total abdominal hysterectomy performed by my gynecologist. “I just had a hysterectomy and now I’m dying of cancer,” I tearfully blurted out. “You’re not dying, I’ll inform you if you are dying,” a voice immediately responded. These rational words jolted me back to reality, and before we left I signed a consent form for a laparotomy—a specialized procedure in which abdominal organs are removed, biopsied or repaired and a definitive diagnosis can be made.

That first meeting with Dr. Ghatage now seems like a lifetime ago. In a few weeks I’m scheduled for another routine checkup at the cancer centre. It’s essential that I be monitored regularly for a possible recurrence or any signs of malignancy—ovarian cancer has a notoriously high recurrence rate. Many women with the disease face at least one recurrence within five years of their first diagnoses. Since my cancer is considered to be fairly advanced, the standard course of treatment that was recommended included a month and a half of radiation therapy. Originally over twenty rounds of external beam radiation were advised and were to follow my cycles of chemotherapy. My understanding is that following through with this proposal might have reduced my odds of recurrence to as low as five or 10 per cent.

Last fall I made the excruciatingly difficult decision to forego treatment with radiation, opting for observation instead. The risks of pelvic radiation include the possibility of rectal bleeding—in addition some patients will experience a bowel blockage or a permanent change in bowel habits after their treatments are finished. In some cases undergoing radiation can result in bowel or bladder damage serious enough to be permanent or to require surgical intervention to correct. For most cancer patients the benefits outweigh these serious risks, which are comparatively small. But due to my personal medical history it’s almost certain that radiation would have posed a substantial danger. The radiation oncologist informed me that due to my previous bowel blockage the possibility of acute complications occurring would be much higher than average. Besides, I was undeniably exhausted from three consecutive abdominal surgeries in addition to five cycles of Carboplatin, at the time I felt I could endure little more.

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As I await my appointment on May 23, the encouraging news is that I’m currently in remission—at least I am to my knowledge—and my chances of a complete cure are better the longer I remain in this state. The Canadian Cancer Society defines remission as a decrease in or disappearance of signs and symptoms of cancer. In partial remission, some, but not all, signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared. In complete remission, all signs and symptoms of cancer have disappeared, although cancer still may be in the body. According to Ovarian Cancer Canada, 80 per cent of women diagnosed with ovarian cancer will achieve remission. However, it is unknown if the cancer will come back or how long before it comes back. These unanswered questions linger in every woman‘s mind. In the meantime, I’ve made my health my primary focus—a nutritious diet, an appropriate exercise routine and getting enough sleep have never been more important. Obviously I’m careful to take my daily medication; I’ve been prescribed the drug Megace (generic name megestrol), it has been known to reduce recurrence rates in uterine, ovarian and breast cancer patients. Finally, hope and my steadfast determination to live each moment of my life fully and completely remain my allies in this dreadful waiting game.

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Information Please

The moment I was diagnosed with cancer I entered a psychological realm where wanting to know everything about the disease alternated with fear and aversion. I realized it was solemn news when a week after my hysterectomy the phone range and my surgeon wanted to see me immediately. As I sat in my gynecologist’s office on that autumn afternoon, he was thoughtful enough to provide me with my own copy of the surgical pathology report, a crucial document outlining the specifics of my uterine and ovarian cancer. He estimated that it would be a couple of weeks before I could have a consultation with a team of oncologists at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. In the coming days I developed a love-hate relationship with the information that I had been given. Numb and in shock, I read over the three-page report repeatedly, meticulously researching the strange and frightening medical terminology.

I read the words endometroid adenocarcinoma for the first time, I didn’t comprehend until much later that I had learned my enemy’s name. Derived from the words “adeno” meaning pertaining to a gland and “carcinoma” meaning a cancerous tumour, the disease is a formidable adversary. One organ that is commonly affected includes the lining of the uterus, or endometrium. Adenocarcinoma is even more frequently diagnosed in the colon or the lungs. My surgical pathology report contained many confusing and ominous terms. I never thought of my reproductive organs as a possible death sentence, but that’s what the report seemed to be implicating. References to yellowish tan neoplasm and a uterine tumour measuring 11 centimetres at its greatest dimension both sickened and terrified me! At another point I started to pity my tiny right ovary. To make the personification complete, I’m sure she fought a valiant battle, but she was strangled by a separate tumour of about 7 centimetres.

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I’ve come a long way since I first read that menacing pathology report nearly a year and a half ago. My ability to deal with medical information and to collaborate with my health care team has improved since then. Today, I offer the following advice to cancer patients and their caregivers. In a broader sense these recommendations could probably apply to anyone facing a serious health crisis.

Knowledge is Power

You are the most important member of your cancer care team and it’s essential to actively participate in your care. Pay close attention throughout the process of your care and participate fully in discussions with your oncologist and other medical specialists. Don’t hesitate to raise any concerns with your oncologist or with other appropriate health care professionals on your cancer team. If something doesn’t seem right or you sense that certain issues aren’t being addressed speak up!

Find the Right Balance

Never in my life have I felt so simultaneously overwhelmed by an abundance of medial information and frustrated by a lack of it. This ambiguity of emotions is understandable in cancer patients as they undergo treatment for some of the most complex and difficult to understand diseases within the realm of medical science. Personally, I’ve discovered that tension and anxiety occur unless a balance of information about my cancer is achieved (not too much and not too little). In my opinion, this ideal equilibrium will vary. It also depends largely on an individual’s psychological makeup and is more often than not impossible to maintain constantly.

Use Only Reliable Sources

Simply explained, every cell in the body has a tightly regulated system that dictates when it needs to grow, mature and eventually die off. Cancer occurs when cells lose this control and divide and proliferate indiscriminately. Theories, treatments and possible explanations for cancer are abundant. They range from the factual or medically proven to the bizarre, absurd and downright dangerous. Regrettably there are a few contemptible individuals who knowingly try to profit from cancer patients or exploit our unique physical, emotional and psychological needs. I appreciate that the most specific and reliable information comes from my oncologist and the related medical professionals on my cancer care team. When I access printed materials or the abundance of online resources that are available, I am highly selective. I’d like to conclude this post by listing a few prominent organizations that I recommend.

The Canadian Cancer Society   http://www.cancer.ca

The American Cancer Society   http://www.cancer.org

CancerNet  http://www.cancer.net/cancer-types/uterine-cancer

 Ovarian Cancer Canada   http://www.ovariancanada.org

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