How to tell a patient she has ovarian cancer

Sharing bad news with a patient can be very challenging.

It’s important to let a patient know in person that they have ovarian cancer, not over the telephone. A face-to-face appointment can be less upsetting and will give her the opportunity to ask questions.

It can help to anticipate how your patient may feel. She may feel shocked, angry, scared, anxious or upset. She may feel a mixture of all of these emotions at once.

Every woman is unique and will react differently to the news that she has ovarian cancer, but there are ways that you can make it easier for her to digest:

  • Get the facts straight. Ensure that you have facts straight, and that you understand the statistics and are able to explain them.
  • Prepare her. You could use words like ‘I’m very sorry, but I have some bad news to tell you.’ You could allow a few seconds for this to sink in before continuing.
  • Keep it simple. Using clear, plain English will assist your patient in understanding what you’re saying. Try to avoid technical language and abbreviations but keep your words simple and sentences straightforward.
  • Speak slowly and be prepared to repeat yourself if you feel your words have not been understood.
  • Look her in the eye. Maintaining eye contact can be reassuring and make an interaction more personal.
  • Ask if she has any questions and be ready for questions at any time, not just at the end of your diagnosis. Your patient may need certain things clarifying as you go along.
  • Take your time. Hearing that you have ovarian cancer can be very shocking. Your patient may need time to digest what she’s heard and may want to sit in silence within the containing walls of your office.  Don’t rush her, allow your words to be understood.
  • Make a follow-up appointment. Your patient may be so in shock that she may not be able to think straight or questions may come to her later when she has had time to digest what you’ve said. A follow-up appointment can give her the opportunity to ask any further questions that she may have.