The Role of Intuition in Health Decisions: How to Get Your Oncologist to Listen
July 2, 2013
Not too long ago, I received a call from a close family member. This relative has been bravely battling a cancer diagnosis for more than a year, but the most recent chemotherapy regimen has been, to put it nicely, living up to its reputation as the Red Devil.
The general physician suggested dropping the chemotherapy. While the cancer hadn’t spread to the point of being untreatable, they thought a palliative regimen would be a big improvement in quality of life. The oncologist, however, suggested they try one of the other drugs that have the potential to treat this particular cancer.
With one medical professional saying one thing and one medical professional saying another, my loved one wasn’t sure what choice to make. With the confusion evident in their voice, they asked me what I thought they should do.
“You have to do whatever your body tells you to do.”
When you’re making medical decisions, you have a distinct advantage that your medical team doesn’t: You intuitively know what’s going on with your body. You know exactly how certain treatments make you feel, what you can tolerate and what is, and isn’t, worth the medical payoff. You’re also able to tap into emotions and gut reactions that may make one specific treatment choice seem like the natural one from your perspective.
Although patient intuition can be a powerful tool, doctors don’t automatically consider it when making treatment referrals. Recent studies do show, however, that it’s playing more of a role in doctor-prescribed treatments, as they realize that it can be more than a biased guess.
“[Intuition’s] wholesale rejection in medical practice seems at best simplistic and at worst harmful to patient health,” explains a 2011 study in the journal of General Internal Medicine. “Not taking it seriously can violate patient dignity and devalue potentially therapeutic information.”
So how can you make sure those feelings, which are notoriously hard to put into words, are heard, understood and acted upon by your medical team?
Getting Your Oncologist to Value Your Intuition
Choose your words carefully. You’re probably all too familiar with the advanced “medical-ese” that doctors seem to speak. However, it’s not necessary for you to load up your sentences with technical jargon for your doctor to accept what you’re saying.
In fact, the study found that it wasn’t a lack of relevant vocabulary that made physicians disregard intuition-based comments. The doctors were more likely to disregard a patient’s intuition when the patient’s points were illogical and hard to follow, or when they came across as “hypervigilant.”
A day or two before your appointment, ask a loved one to role-play the conversation you’re about to have with your doctor. Practice speaking with confidence, and try to organize your argument into main speaking points. Even if it’s hard to fully describe what you’re feeling, do your best and be prepared to answer questions.
Respect the limits of your intuition. If you can show your physician that you’re aware your intuition has limits, they may be more receptive to your point of view. The researchers found that doctors were open to other options when patients presented their thoughts in a balanced, self-aware manner.
Exercise your intuition in scenarios where scientific evidence doesn’t show hard or fast rules. The General Internal Medicine study found that when there are no clinically accepted “best practices” for a decision, an oncologist may be more willing to let patient intuition guide the final decision.
This factor may be especially applicable with mesothelioma, a disease that is less heavily researched than many other cancers. In some situations, there won’t be adequate scientific evidence for your doctor to say with confidence that one specific treatment decision would be better than another. If you’re able to show your doctor that you’ve done the research on the medical end, you may be able to make a better case for an intuition-influenced choice.
Above all, know that you’re the only one who can approve or refuse treatments. You know your body better than anyone, and it’s your responsibility to listen to it.