Love & Wisdom

How to Talk to Your Doc

Sharing what I learned from an unexpected diagnosis

By Linda Morgan February 19, 2024

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This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

When I was hit with a frightening diagnosis several years ago, the first thing I did in my doctor’s office was try to read the room. In the room were my husband, my doctor, and on Facetime from Michigan, my physician son. 

“We will do everything to try to preserve both your quality and quantity of life,” my doctor was saying, while we all sat in shock, the words disappearing into the kind of exploding cloud you see in comic strips.

The silence was eerie, the sort of quiet you hear after snow blankets the ground and the birds, the smart ones, have fled to San Diego or Cabo. 

No one was smiling except the Mona Lisa print on the wall, and at that moment her grin looked more like a smirk.

I understood that my doctor, an oncologist, was no doubt experienced in the art of delivering bad news. I also understood that I, the patient, had very little experience receiving it. “There is no cure,” the doctor continued. “I realize that,” I replied. Long fascinated by the way the human body works, I consume the Merck Manual the way most people read John Grisham. “Just don’t tell me about averages or timelines,” I told him. “I really don’t want to hear that.”

“No problem,” he said, then proceeded to recite stats that included both averages and timelines. “You should be fine for a while,” he said helpfully. “But I wouldn’t plan that trip in a few years to France.”

“How about Italy?” I asked.

Several doctors later, I landed on one who seems to get me. He patiently answers all my questions, the ones my husband asks, and the ones my daughter and son ask when they “appear” at my appointments virtually, on various screens. This doctor doesn’t rush out of the room as if a fire had suddenly erupted on floor five. He follows the research and knows considerably more than I do about new trials and promising studies. He works at Fred Hutch, that world-class cancer center in South Lake Union.

He sometimes says scary things, but only if I ask scary questions. So, I’ve learned to embrace a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” demeanor when I come in for my visits. It’s a strategy I highly recommend.

Here is a sampling of my questions:
• Can I still drink wine? How about vodka? How much vodka?
• When are they going to fix the parking situation here?
• Where’s that very pleasant nurse who wears pink Uggs?
• I fill out the same form every time I come. Does anyone ever read it?
• Are concierge doctors really worth the expense?
• How do you feel about cosmetic procedures? No, I mean for me?
• Can Internet reception in this building get any worse?
• When my hair grows back, will it still have blonde highlights?
• I saw the psychiatrist you recommended and gave her some useful advice.
• If I have any more questions, should I call you or just ask Google?

So far, my approach has been working fine. I subscribe to the “no news is good news” school of thought, and this way, I can be assured of upbeat updates. That is, unless my pink Ugg-wearing, very pleasant nurse has changed floors.

Linda Morgan is former managing editor of Seattle magazine and ParentMap, education contributor for KING-5, and author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Academic Potential.

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