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How to cope with unexpected bad medical news

Many of us have had to contend with an element of bad news at some point. Medical bad news are in a category of their own, and can be a nightmare to contend with. Bad medical news are usually about an unexpected grim diagnosis, a morbid outcome, or the futility of undergoing further treatments.

Your doctor will find the most appropriate way of passing on the bad news to you. You may already be used to getting appraised about your medical issues by phone or email, usually for pretty innocuous stuff. But for most bad news, you will likely be invited to attend in person. This is the best approach for discussing grim details in a more personalized manner. You may be asked to spare more time for the appointment, and to probably come accompanied by a close family member or a friend. Your sixth sense will immediately alert you about the gravity of the matter, you shouldn’t kid yourself that it’s just another ordinary visit to the doctor’s.

Bad news should be conveyed in a humane manner. The opening statement may be forthright, or worded to prepare you for the worst. If you heeded the advice to bring along a confidante, allow them to sit in during the whole conversation. Listen intently to what your doctor has to say, best not to interrupt unnecessarily. Once it’s out and clear, ask questions to clarify what it all means, and what your subsequent options are. Your mind may be a bit hazy to start with, but whoever you brought along can step in and speak on your behalf. Whatever emotions get into you, you must try your best to understand everything.

What you do next depends on what has come up. It may be something you always suspected, and you may not be too surprised. If that’s the case, you may already know within yourself the course that your illness will likely take. An unexpected diagnosis, say cancer for example, may throw you off course. You may go through phases of psychological instability, including denial and depressive phases. But at the end of the day, you must find a way of contending with what has come up. Supportive family and friends come in handy, or even psychological professional help.

Your doctor will help you with several treatment options. If a curable option is available, you will be veered towards this path. If the condition is deemed incurable, you will be directed towards controlling distressing symptoms and making the most of the rest of your days. Bad medical news can be very distressing, but you are better off being in the know. Staying oblivious to unwanted diagnoses, or inevitable mortal outcomes just deprives you of the right to make well-informed choices.

Dr Alfred Murage is a Consultant Gynecologist and Fertility Specialist.

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