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medical discussions can backfire

Image by S-o-c-i-a-l-C-u-t on Unsplash.

In one of my social media groups, someone recently posted (details changed slightly):

“I have a serious problem with my joints. The doctor warned me I’ve got a degenerative condition that can only get worse. However, a physical therapist gave me some exercises and things seemed to get better.

“I was so excited, I shared my experience with a few of my relatives. They tried to discourage me. They said, “The physical therapist is giving you false hope. Now I’m feeling really frustrated.

I can relate to this post. Many years ago, I strained both my Achilles tendons.  A doctor warned me, “You’ll never do aerobics again.”

I found a physical therapist who gave me some exercises and, 25 years later, I’ve been to hundreds of aerobics and Zumba classes.

Some PTs do paint a falsely rosy picture. But some don’t. This woman needs a second or third opinion – not advice from well-meaning family members.

Medical conditions can be traumatic, puzzling, and frustrating. It’s tempting to share our feelings with friends and family.  We’re constantly encouraged to share feelings. We’re told that’s the definition of intimacy. We’re even told it’s unhealthy to hide our feelings.

Unfortunately, sharing a medical story with the wrong person or persons can be harmful to our physical and mental health.

I’ve observed 3 categories of problems that arise from sharing too widely.

First, when you ask someone to share your pain, you’re asking them to use energy to manage their emotions, i.e., do emotion work.

Your confidantes must decide how to respond. They may feel guilty because they’re so happy in their own lives.

Every time they see you, they won’t see “Jane Jones” anymore. They’ll see “Jane, the cancer patient.” Or “Jane, the poor woman whose knees gave out.” They’ll wonder, “Should I say something? If so, what?”

If you’ve got a particularly awkward type of condition, (e.g., related to gynecology or gastroenterology), you’ll feel uncomfortable with your confidante for quite a while afterward.

A life coach who survived breast cancer told me, “I learned to be very careful when I talked about my diagnosis. People freak out when they hear the word ‘cancer.’ There are even ‘cancer fans’ who want to talk to you. When you share with someone, your relationship changes. You can’t un-say the news.”

Second, most people are clueless about medical conditions (including their own).

They won’t understand your particular challenge unless they’ve been there themselves or shared with a close relative. Even worse, they may have experience with one type of condition when yours is quite different.

Mary thought she could confide in Emily about her cancer diagnosis. After all, Emily was a cancer survivor. She’d understand.

Emily thought she was encouraging Mary: “Just a few weeks of radiation and you’ll be fine!”

Cancer comes in many varieties. A cancer of a specific organ can be slow-growing and easily curable, but a different cancer of the same organ will be fast-growing, vicious, and rare. Mary’s cancer targeted the same organ as Emily’s but was so different, it was barely the same disease.

The treatment that saved Emily might be useless for Mary. Emily’s well-meaning encouragement came off as cruel and disturbing.

Third, people have different values and attitudes about receiving medical treatment.

Some people say, “I’m just going to trust the team and do what they tell me.”

I’ve met people who never got second opinions, including a woman who entered treatment for breast cancer and a man who experienced triple-bypass heart surgery.

Others (like me) question everything. I even got a second opinion when I banged my knee, because the first doctor seemed ageist and indifferent.

Once I  thought I’d have to stay overnight in a hospital following outpatient surgery. I was particularly concerned about being awakened every two hours so they could check how I was doing. I need my sleep!

A friend who was the “trusting” type said, “They have a good reason for doing this. Anyway, you can’t change their rules.” She had a lot of experience with hospitals.

But in this case, she was wrong. I asked my doctor to give an order that I was not to be awakened for any reason. If I woke up during the night, I could page the nurses and they could check on me.  The doctor agreed to write the order.

I have no idea if I’d get the same result with every doc or hospital, but the point is, you can’t rely on someone else’s experience. It can be SO tempting (“you don’t need that second opinion”) that I once gave in…and spent months regretting that I’d shared my story, let alone followed advice from someone who seemed more knowledgeable.

When you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s medical story, resist the temptation to give advice.

A friend told me about making appointments for certain screening tests.  I had to bite my tongue. I read the published research and I know those particular tests have little or no value. (I’ve also read an excellent book by Gilbert Welch, Less Medicine More Health.)

My friend trusts the system. She would have been distressed and annoyed if I’d recommended books, videos, and articles written by established, highly qualified professionals. She doesn’t want to read the fine print and the disclaimers.

And, to my hidden dismay, she doesn’t have to. It’s her body. She gets to make the choices. I get to respect them.

Bottom line: It’s not always healthier to share your medical stories.

Find someone who’s “safe” to talk to – someone who shares or respects your values.  You may have to pay for this kind of support. Listen to your intuition and your body, not your friends and acquaintances.

Remember, it’s nobody else’s business. If they crave details, it’s their problem – not yours.