Hoping for Health Care Professionals

An ongoing goal of the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship is to provide consumer input for health care professionals about how they communicate with their patients, and how they discuss cancer, treatment options, and outlook with patients and their family members. To help with this educational process, NCCS conducted a survey entitled “Words that Heal, Words that Harm.”

Words That Heal, Words that Harm

Cancer survivors were asked to submit the most helpful and the least helpful statements made to them by members of their health care team. A few of their statements are reprinted below:

Surgeon to man with prostate cancer who asked if he shouldn’t receive radiation therapy—
Your pathology was terrible. There’s nothing you can do or we can do that will extend your life one hour.
Nurse to patient receiving chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s disease—
Well, at least you don’t have AIDS.
Internist to patient newly diagnosed with cancer—
I don’t want you to feel guilty. It’s not your fault you got cancer.
Radiation oncologist to patient beginning therapy—
I don’t know why we’re doing this radiation protocol; there isn’t that much hope.
General practitioner telling patient initial diagnosis—
It’s only Hodgkin’s. It’s no big deal. There’s no reason you should be upset about this.
Male nurse to patient newly diagnosed with breast cancer—
Ask questions and tell people what you want and what you are concerned about.
Medical oncologist to cancer patient diagnosed with advanced disease—
Someone has to be in the 15% survival figure and it might as well be you.
Oncologist to woman when first diagnosed with gynecological cancer, now a long-term survivor—
We will treat this cancer and then you will get on with your life.
Oncologist to newly diagnosed patient—
Something good will come of this.

In this list, it is quite easy to identify the helpful—and the harmful—statements. As health care professionals, it may not be as easy to recognize the power that our words can have. They may be uplifting or they may create word wounds. A decade from now, a cancer survivor may still use your words as an example of a negative communication exchange, or your words may still have positive meaning for the individual.

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