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  • Jeanne Lee

Post 70: It's Not Cowardly to Not Want to Know

"I always thought I was brave and a go getter, that I could handle just about anything. But I don't want to know the CT scan results. I hope you don't think that's cowardly of me."

A patient once asked me not to think of her as cowardly after she declined to hear her latest test results. This request came as a surprise to me as a palliative care physician (read Post 1: What Exactly Does a Palliative Care Specialist Do?) because I had not thought that a patient may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or guilty about wanting to have a moment of blissful ignorance. Then I experienced the same.


I had struggled with labs straddling the line between "normal" and "prediabetes" since my fourth pregnancy. I remember working hard to lose post-pregnancy weight - recording each calorie was such a tedious chore! - and when it came to attend my annual physical, I postponed it. I postponed my appointment again and again because I feared that all my hard work over the previous twelve, then fourteen, then sixteen months would not be reflected in my annual labs. I knew how incredibly discouraged, possibly even demoralized, I would feel if I learned that my labs were again not within a certain range.


I am normally a data driven person, a questioner who seeks pertinent information to make the best possible decisions with accompanying action plans. "This is not me," I thought, "It's embarrassing to think I may not be able handle news about my own health."


However, when it comes to learning potentially life altering news, such as serious health news that may forever change how one envisions their future - including dreams, hopes, ambitions, and expectations - there may not be a Right Time, but there can certainly be a Wrong Time in hearing this information.


The Wrong Time is when someone is absolutely not in a place to hear, think about, process, or sit with the emotions that are provoked by difficult, serious, hard to hear, bad news.


"I know I can open his portal to look up his labs, but I don't really feel like it this weekend. I'll know soon enough when we see his specialist next week. It's not that I don't want to know. I just don't need to know this weekend," remarked a goal oriented, action driven parent.


I describe in Post 13: Sometimes It's Denial, and Sometimes It's Just Really Bad Timing examples of the Wrong Time.


I also encourage in Post 13, as I am reiterating in this post, for each of us to respectfully tell any healthcare provider that is trying to push their agenda on their timeline to firmly say, "Please pause. I'm feeling overwhelmed/ anxious/ stressed, and I'm not hearing what you're saying. Can we discuss this at another time/ follow up clinic visit? Or, you can talk to my spouse/ child/ best friend, who is my medical power of attorney [read Post 4: Eleven Common Myths About the Medical Power of Attorney (MPOA)]."


It is not cowardly to not want to know. It is human and it is common, and we should all have the right to process difficult information when we are as ready as we can be.