Choice of Words Do Matter


Does your choice of word matter to your patients?

"Words can inspire. And words can destroy. Choose yours well." — Robin Sharma

Do you paid attention to your choice of words while talking with your patients? Sometimes we get so complacent with our jobs that we become desensitized to the situations that lie in front of us. When working with patients we need to be aware of this more than ever, and I believe it is more important with the oncology population.

As health care providers, we need to remember that the situation the patient is in may be the first time they are experiencing it. Patients may not understand the terminology, testing or treatment for their cancer. This is a time when we as nurses can connect to patients and become their biggest advocate. Step back and put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel?

Imagine yourself going through everyday life and one day you wake up and find something abnormal on your body. This recently happened to myself and the first thing I wanted to do was ignore it — maybe that’s just the nurse in me, but after a couple of weeks when thing did not change, I decided I better get it checked. There are several things that I learned about my experience, that maybe I need to be more aware of and so should you.

I had gone to the doctor’s office and he did confirm that what I was feeling was not normal. Just the confirmation of that made my mind race. I quickly learned how powerful your mind is and how it can take you to the worst place first. Before I had even left the exam room I had self-diagnosed myself and the diagnosis was not good! I proceeded to the check out and the sweet receptionist made the appointment for further testing. As she was handing my appointment she sweetly said, “I will be praying for you.” In my mind, I was asking, “Why are you going to pray for me? What did the doctor told you that he didn’t tell me?” Is it not fun how a common gesture can be interpreted the wrong way when put in a stressful circumstance?

As I went in for the test, my anxiety and stress levels were off the chart, and here I am an oncology nurse that knows what the testing is about. I had no idea the emotions that come with the situation. As I was waiting for them to call me back I kept thinking to myself What if this isn’t the news I want to hear? and then I quickly tried to reassure myself everything was going to be ok. They called me back and the testing began.

The technician was making small talk, but what I will remember is her choice of words and her facial expressions. I just wanted to get the test done and find out what it was. She was very polite, but her choice of wording made my mind go back to those dark thoughts. Could it have been that she had been at her job for several years or maybe this was just run of the mill for her? To me, it was the first time that I had to go through it.

I went on for more testing and was again faced with bad choice of words. When the doctor came in to tell me that it was “essentially negative,” I wasn’t sure how to react. What do you mean "essentially"? I was grasping at every word he was saying, but still cautiously waiting for the next words to come out. I asked and made sure what I was hearing was what he meant (thank goodness everything did come back negative).

Oncology patients are faced with so many different challenges than other patients. They are just trying to stay alive while getting rid of their cancer so they can live to tell their story. When we are trying to be helpful maybe we should pay close attention to our choice of words and even facial expressions. How many times do you tell patients “Oh, everything looks good on your blood work”? Would it be better to show them the labs and the normal range instead of just saying it "looks good"? Go the extra mile next time. Pay attention to their needs. This may be the first time they are experiencing this. Take the time to explain, give them comfort, and listen to them.

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