March 2001

Sometimes when we go to the doctor, we find ourselves in a situation where we don't really know what is going on. This can make us feel helpless. How can we find out what is happening and feel more in control of the situation? Mrs. Smith and her daughter Ann faced this problem.

Bad News & Feeling Helpless

Mrs. Smith is 72 years old and has type 2 diabetes (type 2 diabetes is also called non-insulin-dependent diabetes or adult-onset diabetes).She had not been feeling well, so her daughter Ann took her to the doctor.

The doctor said Mrs. Smith was anemic, and decided to admit her to the hospital. Ann understood that her mother was being admitted for treatment of the anemia. Her doctor said that he would have a specialist evaluate her condition.

The specialist turned out to be a hematologist/oncologist (this is a blood and cancer doctor). Ann then discovered that her mother was on a cancer ward, and surmised that she had cancer.

Eventually, the specialist came into the room and told them that Mrs. Smith's diagnosis was lymphoma (a type of blood cell cancer). He stayed a few minutes and used million-dollar medical terms that were not familiar to Mrs. Smith or Ann. Ann knew her brothers and sisters would have lots of questions, too, so she asked him to write the words down. Ann went home and looked up all the words.


This is an example of how families should not be informed about a medical condition. Ann is a bright, well-educated woman, but she felt helpless and overwhelmed because she did not know what was going on with her mother's health. This is a common reaction when we do not have enough information. We can feel more empowered by being better informed. Don't assume the doctor will tell you everything you need to know. Ask a few questions so you have a better understanding of the situation.

Before leaving the doctor's office, ask :

  • What is the diagnosis?
  • How did you decide this is the problem?
  • What other conditions did you consider?
  • How will the condition be treated?
  • When will the treatment start and how long will it last?
  • Who will be the doctor in charge at the hospital?
  • Will you help us if we have any problems?

Don't be embarrassed to ask the doctor to explain things in simple terms -- the information will not help you if you do not understand it!

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