By Dr. Vicki Rackner,
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 flair-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 the diagnosis of colon cancer that
ultimately took her life. Natalie’s brother-in-law, who was a nurse,
wondered whether Joann would still be alive if she had 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 P’s:
- 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
if 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 if he might be depressed, but dismissed the thought
because real men don’t get depressed.
Imagine how each of these stories
might have been different if these individuals who suffered in silence could
have talked with their doctors.
Here are 6 tips that can help you
talk with your doctor about embarrassing medical topics:
- Own the embarrassment.
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 belly button?”
- Find the words.
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.
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.”
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.
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 the 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
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.
easier for you to drop a note or a cartoon to your doctor rather than ask in
person. Find the style that works best for you.
- Remember that your doctor is
there to help you, not to judge you.
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 helping you take charge
of your health.
Dr. Vicki is a board-certified surgeon and Clinical
Instructor at the University of Washington School of Medicine who left the
operating room to help caregivers and patients take the most direct path
from illness to optimal health.
Want more caregiving tips? Get your free
report “Caring for the Caregiver” by emailing Dr. Vicki Rackner at DrVicki@DrVicki.org
and be sure to check out her regular column with the Johnson & Johnson
Consumer Products Group’s new caregiver Website