5 tips for mindfully communicating a cancer diagnosis that strengthen bonds of trust and enhances patient care.
Since one in four dogs will develop cancer in their lifetime (and half of dogs aged ten and over), veterinarians will regularly find themselves communicating a diagnosis to their clients. Unfortunately, just hearing “cancer” invokes a fear response, as humans associate that word with life-altering devastation and debility.
Statistics aside, advances in early detection and diagnostics, therapeutic interventions that prioritize quality of life, and targeted nutritional support offer empowering choices that need to be carefully and compassionately communicated to clients.
Both physicians and veterinarians often feel ill prepared to navigate the emotional waters of delivering difficult diagnoses. Medical training has historically focused more on technical proficiency, with less attention placed on teaching communication skills and the psychosocial aspects of caregiving. Research shows that situations where providers are less comfortable with these difficult conversations result in less patient satisfaction and decreased patient outcomes (1).
However, according to a North Carolina State University survey, veterinarians as a profession are perceived as more approachable, sensitive, sympathetic, patient, and understanding than their physician counterparts (2). Also, there is more focus in veterinary education today on collaboration, empathy, and communication (2).
Often, clients with animal companions who receive a cancer diagnosis will need to make difficult and emotionally charged decisions for their beloved pets. Here are some tips to support them through the process.
1. Allow time
Ask your clients if they would prefer discussing treatment plans at a later appointment. Sometimes the emotional shock of a cancer diagnosis can make it difficult for clients to hear your information and make thoughtful decisions regarding it.
2. Ask open-ended questions
Allow clients to talk and share their story. You can learn about the relationship family members share with their pet as well as identify physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, and cultural needs and/or obstacles to care.
3. Emphasize that collaboration and communication are important
As you work together to create a plan for their pet’s care, affirm that your clients are active participants.
4. Emphasize the differences in human cancer care and veterinary cancer care
Therapies are often much better tolerated in veterinary patients as the emphasis in protocol development is on maintaining quality of life.
5. Empower clients with positive action steps they can take at home to support their companions
Provide nutritional support options, including a Nutrition Plan with specific dietary and supplement recommendations geared toward cancer patients. In addition to nutritional support, convey clear instructions on how to handle potential problems, and a list of reliable print and online resources.
A cancer diagnosis starts a journey for both caregivers and their beloved animals that requires fortitude, resiliency, and support. By communicating clearly with patience and empathy, by validating clients’ emotions and choices, and by providing understandable, reliable, and easily accessible information, we can deepen the bond of trust with our clients and enhance the care of our patients.
1.Alshami A, Douedi S, Avila-Ariyoshi A, et al. Breaking bad news, a pertinent yet still an overlooked skill: an international survey study. Healthcare (Basel). 2020;8(4):501.
2.Kedrowicz AA, Royal KD. A comparison of public perceptions of physicians and veterinarians in the United States. Vet Sci. 2020 Apr 22;7(2):50.