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Medical advice: how to talk with your doctor about embarrassing medical problems
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Medical advice: how to talk with your doctor about
embarrassing medical problems
The realization hit Natalie like a ton of bricks. Her mother, Joann,
had literally died of embarrassment! Joann had noticed blood in her stool
almost a year before she was diagnosed with colon cancer. At first she
told herself it must have been those beets she ate. Then she thought it
was most likely her hemorrhoids, although she had not had a flare-up of
hemorrhoids since Natalie's birth 52 years earlier.
The truth was that Joann was embarrassed to talk with her doctor about
private topics such as her bowel habits. She didn't raise the concern
with her doctor until she had bloating, cramping and abdominal pain. This
led to diagnosis of the colon cancer that ultimately took her life.
Natalie's brother-in-law, a nurse, wondered whether Joann would still be
alive had she told her doctor about the blood in her stool when she
first noticed it.
Let's face it: certain topics are embarrassing to talk about with
your doctor. I call them the 5 Ps:
- psychic moaning
Although at first blush the challenge of talking with your doctor
about embarrassing medical topics seems simple enough, for some people,
it can cause significant suffering.
Hillary, for example, had what's now called a shy bladder. She had
not used a public restroom in over 20 years. She was too embarrassed
to talk with her doctor about this. Instead, she remained a prisoner
to her bladder.
Ed was laid off from work and could no longer afford his asthma
medications. Instead of talking with his doctor about it, he decided
to do without He wound up in the emergency room with an asthma attack
that could have been avoided with regular medication.
Tom had some sexual side effects from his blood pressure medicine.
Instead of talking with his doctor and getting a different medicine, he
just stopped taking it. The doctors wonder whether this might have
contributed to his heart attack.
Jerry noticed his loss of appetite and sleeping problems as his
caregiver responsibilities for his aging father mounted. He wondered
whether he might be depressed but dismissed the thought because real
men don't get depressed.
Imagine how each of these stories might have had a different outcome had
these individuals who suffered in silence talked with their doctors.
Here are 6 tips that can help you talk with your doctor about
embarrassing medical topics:
- Own the embarrassment.
- Say to your doctor, "This is a taboo topic in our family, so it's
hard for me to ask. Is it normal to have a funny smell coming from your
- Find the words.
Your doctor speaks a specialized language acquired through years of
training. Sometimes patients are embarrassed because they don't know
the "right words" or have a hard time describing the problem.
Remember that your job is to communicate. You don't need to know
the fancy words to do that. If a patient said to me, "Dad had an
operation on the dingle-ball thing at the back of his throat", I would
know just what he meant. And, the patient would seem relieved when I
said, "Oh, you mean the uvula."
The best way to make sure you and your doctor understand each other
is to use anatomically correct words. Get a basic anatomy atlas. Use
anatomically correct words with your children.
- Practice saying the words.
- Sometimes embarrassing words can be hard to get out of your mouth.
Gertrude, a 90-year-old patient said to me, "You youngsters don't
understand how much things have changed. When I got breast cancer in 1962,
the words breast and cancer were not uttered in polite
company." Some words are still embarrassing to say. Practice saying
these words out loud when you're alone! That will make it easier to
say them at the doctor's office.
- Find the right person to ask.
- You may have an easy rapport with the nurse or physician's assistant
at your doctor's office. You can bring up the sensitive topic with
them. Say, "Trish, could you please give the doctor a heads up. I
want to know why I should say no to those steroids my buddies at the
gym are offering me. I would love to look like they do."
- Find the right way to ask.
- Maybe it's easier for you to drop a note or a cartoon to your
doctor rather than ask in person. Find the style that works best
- Remember that your doctor is there to help you, not to judge you.
- Your doctor has heard it all before. I promise! Your doctor will
not think less of you for asking an embarrassing medical question. In
fact, your doctor with think more of you for overcoming your fear
and taking charge of your health.
About the Author:
Dr. Vicki is a board-certified surgeon who left the operating room
to help families take the most direct path from illness to optimal
health. Her book, The
Personal Health Journal, can save your life today by helping you
understand your health story. Empower yourself with the tips and tools
that will help you direct your story and partner with your doctor
more effectively at http://www.drvicki.org/drvicki-store-health-journal.html.
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