Receiving bad news about cancer
Part 1: You have lesions in your lungs
So, how did I end up receiving a bad news about cancer? Well, after a testing day of cycling, I ended up in the Emergency Department (ED) with a suspected broken back. What happened? I cycled through a hedge (as you do) and fell into a deep and narrow ditch. My bike went one way and I hit the far side of the bank at force. I felt searing pain in the top of my back. Friends and strangers helped pull me out and I got back on my bike. I cycle another mile or so and we have to stop.
I lie flat on a trolley in the ED with a suspected broken back and in a lot of pain. As I lie there, I am consumed with the need to go to the toilet! I suspect that I am driving everyone nuts by repeatedly asking if they could help me. They all say ‘no, not yet’.
After I had the x-rays the doctor came into the cubicle to share the results with my partner and I. She tells us that I have not broken my back (phew).
Warning shot coming……
However, she then asks: How have you been feeling lately?
As she asks this question, the doctor looked uncomfortable and stumbled over her words. She is unable to really look at me and looks at the floor mostly (non verbal communication). I can also tell that she is building up to tell me something important (warning shot) but is finding it difficult to tell me.
I knew from my own work which researched how people share information when communicating bad news about cancer that some doctors and nurses find it difficult to share bad news.
Therefore, I try to help her by saying that I like people to be honest with me and that if she has some bad news to tell me, she just needs to do so.
Receiving bad news about cancer
The doctor proceeds to tell me that she has reviewed my x-rays and has seen two large lesions; one in each of my lungs and she is very concerned about them. She used the word lesion, but this word is often used when telling someone they have or might have cancer.
I make my excuses and dash (well hobble) to the toilet. Above all, I am grateful for some space alone, to try and compose my thoughts but I struggle. I am in an instant fog and can’t see through it. The whole situation feels surreal.
When I return to the room…
The doctor shows me the chest x-rays when I ask to see them. To clarify, I thought that seeing the images would help me understand what she was telling me but in hindsight, I didn’t really look at them properly. Normally, I pride myself on being clear headed, sensible and in control, but on this occasion I really struggled to absorb the information I was given. When receiving bad news about cancer it can really affect our emotions and ability to take in information. The only thing I remember clearly, was the doctor explaining that this was a serious situation and that I needed to go home as soon as possible and seek urgent help. When I asked her how serious, she told me that I needed to ‘think about putting my life in order’. As she told me this news I was very conscious that she had tears in her eyes and I clearly see this image in my mind today.
My thoughts are whirling around…….
I lie in bed that night with a long list of questions and thoughts and no answers to any of them.
Do I have ovarian cancer like my aunt and these are lung metastasis (cancer spread)?
What should I put on my bucket list?
Do I want tea right now or a strong drink?
Shall we eat or not? I don’t know.
How do I get undressed for bed? I am in so much pain and can’t lift my arms – hang on they forgot my back! what do I do about that?
How on earth do I tell my mum?
This can’t be real; I have been cycling 80 odd miles per day and I am fit.
I travel home the next day with the help of my friend, who happens to be a doctor. My GP is great and springs into action to help me. He phones me in shock when he receives the report from the hospital. He refers me to a Consultant but I have to wait two weeks to see him. Above all, the waiting and uncertainty are the most stressful.
What happens next? Receiving bad news about cancer. Part 2: Reflecting on bad news