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It Really Matters how the News is Delivered

Posted 5/23/2016

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  We have all been the recipient of bad news, and too many of us have stories of the very poor way in which the news was delivered. I have heard several times of women being told on the phone, while they were speeding down the highway, "Sorry to tell you that the biopsy was positive. You have cancer."  There are other stories about being only semi-awake and coherent after surgery and being told bad news by the surgeon...but, then, when you really are awake, you aren't at all sure what you were told.

   Sadly, there is no way to turn bad news into good news, but the time and timing and the place and the tone and the words really matter.  This is another good essay by Susan Gubar from The New York Times about this:

Bad News Delivered Badly

By Susan Gubar

My friend Dana had become alarmed at a canker sore under her tongue: “a white patch, the size of my pinkie
fingernail.” Canker might be cancer, she immediately suspected, possibly signaling a recurrence of her
endometrial disease. She called an ear, nose and throat practice and made an appointment for what turned out to be a biopsy.
A week later, a nurse phoned to read the pathology report: “Superficial fragment of moderate to severe
dysplastic squamous epithelium, cannot rule out invasive squamous cell carcinoma.” Although Dana urged her to define these terms or explain their significance in this particular case, the nurse resisted, stating that the doctor would explain them in a follow-up appointment the next week.
Needless to say, Dana immediately went online where the definitions did not comfort her. At bedtime, she
wept herself to sleep, worrying that she would again lose 15 pounds in radiation, imagining her tongue cut out, brooding over a recurrence and her father’s earlier vocal cord cancer, grieving over putting her children and husband through yet another round of treatment. Finally at the appointed consultation, the doctor said the patch was “probably not cancer.” The pathologists were just “covering themselves” by saying they could not it rule out.
She was incensed at having been put through unnecessary distress.
As any medical practitioner knows, uttering the words “severe,” “invasive” and “carcinoma” to a patient in
remission cannot but escalate terror. Why couldn’t the nurse or the doctor find the ways and means immediately— in a brief phone call or email — to put those fears in perspective?

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