Your Medical Team: How to Deal With Negative Relationships

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There’s nothing that casts a pall over an already tough experience — cancer treatment — like having challenging relationships with the members of your medical team. If you find yourself anxious about seeing your radiation oncologist, or having to deal with the scheduler in chemotherapy, it’s time to take a look at any negative provider relationships — and see what you can do about them.

Assess the relationship carefully

Maybe you feel negatively about your oncologist because the last time you saw her, she buried her nose in her computer and didn’t seem to be listening to you. But is that her usual behavior — or a one-time occurrence? If you determine that she usually engages with you in a positive way, don’t dwell on this one negative experience; focus on her usual behavior, and assume going forward things will be fine.

Is it personal, not professional?

Maybe you and your surgeon don’t share the same political views. Or perhaps you’d prefer a woman oncologist. When negative aspects of the relationship don’t directly involve the skills and experience needed to successfully treat your disease, think hard about whether or not you want to change providers. If you have confidence in your doctor’s skills, maybe it’s better to stick with the devil you know.

Separate knowledge from bedside manner

What your doctor knows and how s/he relays it are both important. Unfortunately, some doctors are much better at one than the other. If your provider is sweet as can be, but suggests treatments that make you think he or she isn’t up-to-date on the most recent research, think hard about finding a new provider.

On the other hand, if you’ve got a surgeon with a super reputation but a very brusque manner, try not to let the personal get in the way of a successful outcome. It might be better just to put up with the less-than-warm behavior for the sake of your long-term health.

Is this relationship important?

You really don’t like the dietitian advising you on nausea issues during chemo. But how important is she in your overall treatment? You’ll probably meet with her two or three times, then never see her again; it’s not worth the time and effort to find someone else.

If you’re uneasy with your oncologist, however, it’s important to work figure out why, and whether or not there’s anything you can do to change how you feel. You’ll see your oncologist regularly for at least a year, often more. It’s important that you have complete trust — and a great relationship — with this person.

Can this relationship be fixed?

You find yourself sighing in frustration when you realize you’ve got the “mean” PA for today’s appointment. Or you try to jockey for position in the radiation waiting room to stay away from the tech who always annoys you with the rough way he positions your arms.

Think about it: have you tried being extra-nice to that “mean” PA to see if she responds to overt kindness? Have you asked the radiation guy to be slow and gentle with your arms, telling him you have shoulder issues? Don’t give up on a relationship until you’ve determined a potential solution — and given it a try.

How to end it

If you’ve gone through the review process above and feel there’s no hope for your current relationship with Doctor X, ask the head of your hospital’s breast program, or one of the hospital’s social workers, what your options are for changing providers. At large facilities, there’s often more than one doctor performing any given function.

If and when you make the change, take the high road: write your doctor a note explaining that your personalities just aren’t a good fit, and you’re sorry it hasn’t worked out. You never know when you might encounter this person again, so it’s good to try to end things on a good note, literally.

See More Helpful Articles:

Four Ways to Get the Doctor-Patient Relationship You Want

Oncology Nurses: Who I Thank as a Breast Cancer Survivor

The Line In the Sand: Relationships and Cancer

10 Ways to Make Sure You Have the Right Oncologist

The Courage of Your Convictions: Having Tough Conversations


Breast cancer survivor and award-winning authorPJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.