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04 May 2022

Medical imaging: 10 tips for handling bad news from your doctor

supports 5 minutes reading time

Your doctor called with scary news. Now what?

Getting a scary diagnosis or bad piece of news from a doctor after receiving a medical imaging scan can leave you feeling shocked, angry, confused, or heartbroken. You may run the entire emotional gamut in one sitting; you may be completely numb; you may not believe what you’re hearing.

Bad news about your health is difficult for your brain to process and accept, and that’s okay. After giving yourself a bit of grace and time to come to terms with what you’ve just heard–and making room for whatever it is that you feel (or don’t)–there are some steps you can take to support and nurture yourself as you walk this unexpected path.

  1. Find your support system and hold on. This is going to be your spouse/person, parents, siblings, friends, adult children, neighbors, or some combination of these. Your support system will be the foundation on which you can rest, cry, fall apart, and be yourself throughout this process. Trust them to prop you up and to shoulder this weight with you. As much as you’re able, accept their offers of help and support, and let them take care of you when you need it.
  2. Get it out. Putting words to something that is painful or scary can cut its power in half. Talk therapy and/or psychiatry are great places to start, but a best friend, parent, or spouse are equally valuable options, too. There are also support groups (both in-person and virtual) for patients and loved ones of patients. Shows and movies can make these kinds of groups look pretty hokey, but having a community that understands what you're going through at a time like this can feel validating, comforting, and authentic. You don’t have to “take care of” your fellow members by shielding them from your fears, pains, and truth–because they get it. They’re living it, too.
  3. Self-care. It’s a bit of a played-out term, but the sentiment is important. Rest, hydration, healthy eating, exercise, and getting some sun on your face are just a few ways you can support your own well-being. Some people may find solace in things like prayer or meditation, hiking, or spending time with a pet. The point is to take what works for you, and leave the rest.
  4. Advocate for yourself. It’s hard enough to be facing something scary inside your own body–you don’t need to compound that with having a doctor who makes you feel unheard, dismissed, confused, or not taken seriously. A doctor should always be kind, respectful, transparent, responsive, and engaged. It’s okay to ask your doctor to slow down, to repeat what they’ve said, or to explain what they’re telling you in plainer language. You can even ask if it’s okay for you to record what the doctor is saying on your phone so that you can reference it later. If the dynamic with your doctor doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Keep searching until you find a doctor you feel comfortable working with. You're in charge.
  5. Gather all the information you can. It can be empowering to educate yourself on the particular aspects of your diagnosis, treatments, and where current medical and biotechnological advances are trending. Knowing what to expect and how to plan for it can take some of the fear of the unknown out of the equation. If your condition is super rare or difficult to treat with conventional medicine, try researching clinical trials and innovative treatment programs. University hospitals are great places to start.
  6. Open up. People don't know what you’re thinking or feeling unless you tell them. If you’re tired, feeling sick, sapped of energy, irritable, sad, or frustrated, be transparent and lay it bare in front of the ones you trust. Even if all you want to do is be alone and pull the covers over your head. Especially then.
  7. But set boundaries. Not everyone should have access to that vulnerable part of you. For the most part, people have pretty good intentions when you’re sick and suffering. They want to help and be helpful. But for some, it may be difficult to compartmentalize their own distress and fear about what’s happening to you. In the end, you somehow find you’re the one comforting them, not the other way around. That is taxing (not to mention inappropriate), and it’s okay to draw a boundary if you find yourself in that dynamic with someone in your life.
  8. Write it down. There is something uniquely cathartic about putting pen to page when you're in pain or fear. You can look back and see how far you've come, what you beat, and how you survived.
  9. Find joy. Yes, there are pockets of joy to be found, even in the midst of pain, suffering, and illness. So as much as you can, keep doing the things you enjoy. Spend time with your absolute favorite people, binge your favorite shows, hike that trail with your person, get your feet in the sand, go on that trip, visit that coffee shop you love. At the same time, be gentle with yourself on the days you don’t feel up for any of it. You can try again another time.
  10. Keep taking the next indicated step. It can be tempting to want to plan and manage every last detail of your future. Being sick often feels overwhelming and out of control, but even the things you can control have limits. Accepting those limits can make your day-to-day life feel more manageable and less overwhelming. Break things down into bite-sized pieces if it helps: one treatment at a time, one appointment at a time, one day at a time. One foot in front of the other.

You can do this.

You already are.

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