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Cancer Health Center

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Communication in Cancer Care (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Communication Along the Disease Trajectory


This process is made difficult by the following factors:[4,5,6,7,8,9]

  • Oncologists are rarely trained in techniques for giving bad news.
  • Physicians often experience negative emotions such as anxiety and fear of being blamed when they must tell patients that treatment has not worked.
  • Physicians may react to patient emotions by offering false hope or premature reassurance.
  • Physicians may omit important information from the disclosure.
  • Patients may process information through a repertoire of coping strategies or styles called denial or blunting, which may include avoiding asking questions, being overly optimistic about the outcome, and distorting information to put it in a better light.

Diagnostic Disclosure and Discussions About Prognosis

When there was little in the way of effective anticancer treatment, physicians shied away from disclosing the cancer diagnosis for fear it would send a patient into a mental tailspin.[10][Level of evidence: II] Disclosure of a cancer diagnosis progressed from the physician-centered paternalistic approach to doctor-patient communication in the 1950s and 1960s, to full disclosure by the late 1970s.[11] Improved treatment modalities, changing societal attitudes and, in the United States, legislation enforcing the patient's right to informed decision making drove physician-patient communication in a more open or disclosing direction.[12] Consequently, today in North America and many Western countries, there is total open disclosure regarding the presence of cancer, although physicians frequently do not discuss the prognosis unless a patient asks. The reluctance to truthfully disclose a terminal prognosis persists in southern Europe, including Italy and Spain.[13] For patients, however, not discussing the diagnosis may engender feelings of isolation, anxiety, lack of autonomy or control, psychological abandonment, mistrust, suspicion, and a sense of betrayal. On the other hand, open discussion of the diagnosis decreases uncertainty, improves participation in decisions about care, allows access to psychological support, encourages self-care, and allows the patient to begin planning for the future.[12]

Although honest disclosure can have a negative emotional impact in the short term, most patients will adjust well over time. Gratitude and peace of mind, positive attitudes, reduced anxiety, and better adjustment are some of the benefits that patients report from having been told about a diagnosis of cancer. Because uncertainty is a major cause of emotional distress for patients, relief from uncertainty can, in itself, be therapeutic;[14] some believe that over time, patients achieve a psychosocial objective correlative of order within the context of chaos theory.[15] When bad news is given tactfully, honestly, and in a supportive fashion, the patient's experience of the conversation is less stressful. Not being told about the severity of their condition or not having the opportunity to express their fears and concerns may lead patients to believe that nothing can be done to help them or may prevent them from understanding their disease.[16];[17][Level of evidence: II] On the other hand, a patient who is told bad news bluntly by a practitioner who is trying to quickly complete the difficult task of sharing bad news will likely feel extremely frightened and unsupported. Being told that there is nothing more to be done can engender feelings of abandonment.[17] One study [18][Level of evidence: II] surveyed 497 cancer patients regarding their experiences receiving their cancer diagnoses.

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