Talking To Your Doctor About Side Effects

Dr. Alicia Morgans is a medical oncologist at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in treating advanced prostate cancer and is particularly interested in addressing treatment side effects.

Prostatepedia spoke with her about cognitive impairment, stress, and prostate cancer treatment.

Have you had any patients whose stories have impacted how you approach patient care or how you think about your role?

Dr. Alicia Morgans: The most poignant in my mind right now is my grandfather who recently passed away from advanced prostate cancer. I know we have spoken about him before. His passing really brought home to me how important it is to have a good medical oncologist, and how privileged we are as medical oncologists to share in this journey with our patients and their families. He was diagnosed at a late age with prostate cancer, but throughout his entire life, he had been averse to doctors and medical care. It was challenging for our family, and for me in particular, because by that time, I was already a prostate cancer specialist. We tried to help him understand that his doctors made recommendations to help him.

During his entire treatment history, I really felt very strongly and personally how important it is to balance quality of life with length of life for men with prostate cancer and their families. Living longer doesn’t mean living better for a lot of people. It’s really important for physicians to recognize that we can’t put our own beliefs about what is most important onto someone else. We have to listen to our patients so that we hear what is most important to them. That is the thing that is most clear in my mind right now.

As my grandfather approached the end of his life, we had to make difficult decisions for him that walked a fine line between length of life and quality of life. He made decisions that some people may not make. He chose not to undergo further therapy at a certain point, even though those therapies existed, because it didn’t make sense for him given his goals and preferences. That is what I think about as being most impactful when I meet with patients.

Do you think patients are often reluctant to have those kinds of conversations with their doctors?

Dr. Morgans: Absolutely. Those are not easy conversations to have. I would say that we were lucky in my grandfather’s situation. We were lucky because I’m persistent and just kept pushing him to speak his mind and let us know what was important to him. In many conversations with patients, I find it’s really important to wait and just be quiet. Let some space fill the room so that men who may be reluctant can take that next step and answer.

As physicians, many of us are so pressed for time that we are almost pressured in the way that we ask those kinds of questions. Just letting some space sit in the room can give men an opportunity to speak. The other thing that is important to do for men with prostate cancer is engage with their caregivers and loved ones, as long as the patients feel comfortable with this interaction. Sometimes caregivers will share things that men themselves don’t feel comfortable sharing. But once it’s out, the men can open up. They feel able to continue that conversation.

I guess some patients might not know how they feel or might have a difficult time expressing how they’re feeling.

Dr. Morgans: Absolutely. No one wants to feel weak. No one wants to admit that he’s not feeling like he did 10 years ago. Optimism is a huge part of feeling well too, and for some, admitting that we don’t feel as well as we did before can stand in the way of optimism.

I think it’s important for us as physicians and as caregivers to make it clear to people that it’s okay to express those feelings. A lot of times we have ways of making those symptoms better. If you’re able to express it, maybe there’s something we can do about it.

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