Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Blogger Lori Hope ( tried to post the following here last week as a comment on my February 15 piece, “Cancer Victim Loses Battle.” Unfortunately, the website’s software foiled her—and, from what I’ve heard, others, too. Anyway, here's her comment: 
Well put, Jeff! Years ago I wrote a radio commentary about a local journalist with breast cancer who, after a "valiant battle," "succumbed" to cancer. This was not a woman who would "succumb" to anything, nor was she a warmonger who would wage war against anything, even cancer. Sticks and stones may break bones, but our words are far more powerful, framing our and others' realities.

Thanks, Lori, and thanks also for reminding us how powerful language is. When patients are dissatisfied, nine out of ten times it’s because of poor communication, not the technical issues of medicine.

One source of poor communication is when we don’t think before we speak. I may be twisted, but I suspect marriage was invented primarily to address that failure, and only secondarily for companionship and procreation. How many times have I learned and relearned to consider twelve times what I plan to say to my wife before I open my mouth?

But I’m digressing. Two people told me this week that their healthcare practitioners, one a physician, the other a nurse practitioner, told them, “Don’t you worry. Let me do the worrying.”

I have at least three problems with such platitudes. First, if you’re going to advise someone not to worry, you may as well advise them not to itch, or for that matter not to get sick in the first place. Maybe Marcus Welby offered his patients such advice and by God, they stopped worrying, but in real life that doesn’t happen. It’s better to save one’s breath than waste it. More than two millennia ago, the sage Dionysius of Halicarnassus said, “Let thy words be better than silence, or else be silent.”

Another problem is that telling people not to feel what they’re feeling isn’t just a harmless inanity, it’s actually anti-therapeutic. It slams shut their emotional compass, invalidates their most potent internal healing mechanism.

Finally, it tends to halt the conversation. What can the patient reply? “Golly, thanks, I won’t worry. Too bad I didn’t think of that myself.” And once the conversation freezes, the suffering goes underground.

I know: let’s have a contest. What’s the most useless sentence you’ve heard in an examining room? I’ll offer some examples.

“If you’re going to get cancer, yours is the one to get.”
“You need to avoid stress.”
“This might hurt a wee bit.”
“You’re being a little paranoid, aren’t you?”

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