How can I get my parent's doctor to explain his cancer treatment in a way I can understand?

2 answers | Last updated: Sep 14, 2017
A fellow caregiver asked...

My 80-year-old father is being treated for a glioma (brain tumor), and every time we leave the doctor's office I realize I still don't understand what's happening and what we can expect. The doctor talks really fast and uses terms I don't know, then seems frustrated when I don't understand. How can I slow her down so I understand better without sounding stupid or wasting her time?

Expert Answers

Eileen Saffran is executive director of the Gathering Place, a community-based cancer support center in Cleveland, Ohio.

It's almost impossible to process or retain the complicated information your parent's doctor is sharing with you without writing it down to review later. Bring paper and pen, or -- better yet -- bring someone with you who can listen, take notes, and ask the questions you don't think of at the time. Another solution many caregivers use is to bring a tape recorder and record the sessions with the doctor, then listen to them later to look things up. (Be sure to ask the doctor's permission first, though -- some are uncomfortable with this.)

Most important, though, don't be afraid to be assertive with the doctor about asking for clarification. If you aren't sure you heard a term correctly or don't know what a word means, ask the doctor to explain it. If you're not sure you understood something correctly, try repeating it back to the doctor. For example, you might say, "You mean I should…" If there are images, such as X-rays or slides, that might help you understand, ask the doctor to show them to you or draw you a diagram. If there's something you still don't understand and the doctor seems impatient, ask her if you can call back at a later time to get more information. Remind yourself that there isn't a time limit; you can take all the time you need to go over cancer diagnosis and treatment information and make sure you understand.

Community Answers

James ballard answered...

12:20 PM CST...Eileen has given you some good options; especially on the part about being assertive.

However, I'm a bit put off by the fact that your doctor appears to lack the empathy required in her profession (although to my knowledge there's no litmus scale for empathy in med school; or if there is now, your doc may have slipped through the cracks).

She should be both sensitive and "intelligent" enough to see (and I mean like, see immediately ! ) that you're not understanding.

Consider : 1) She may (or may not be) very bright. Talking fast does not mean one is bright; doctors have to "learn" a lot by rote; that is how they "learned" to talk fast. This also may be her way of shutting you out ! 2) She may be too young and inexperienced or 3) she may be burned out.

If any of these considerations are tenable, you have only one option :

 DEMAND another doctor !

 Your father has one of the most serious/life threatening cancers and unless your father has made a specific request otherwise (which is a very distinct possibility), you have the legal right to know.

 Whatever you decide, Eileen is right :

 YOU have to be assertive, or get a friend or relative who is !!

 You need to make sure your elderly father suffers as little needless pain as possible and you are at the very least entitled to see that he gets the best pain management available.

 Luck to you and your father. J.B. 6/17/09