The words a Doctor uses are the difference between a Sentence and Hope

By Tami Boehmer and Dr. Deanna Attai, MD


Through my networking on LinkedIn, I connected with Deanna Attai, MD, a breast surgeon and communications chair for the American Society of Breast Surgeons. She read a post about my frustrations with doctors who hand out death sentences and don’t seem to embrace the body-mind-spirit connection. To my delight, Dr. Attai responded that she does “get it” and accepted my offer to do a guest post on the subject:

Much has been written about the importance of the mind-body-spirit connection as it relates to the care of the patient with cancer or other serious illness. As a physician, I agree! Unfortunately, many physicians still continue to treat the patient and disease as one entity when in fact the person requires just as much treatment as the disease does.

While as physicians we are trained to interpret pathology and imaging results and make recommendations for treatment, we often have not received formal training in how to look at the whole person and to consider all aspects of care that will result in improvement or recovery. Some physicians come to the table with this quality, some learn it through personal and/or professional experience, and some unfortunately never get it.

From the first encounter with a patient, a physician is in a powerful position to influence the outcome of disease. Even in the face of the most advanced of cancers, there is usually room for some words of encouragement and support, which can make all the difference in the patient’s attitude towards their disease and their treatment. If a physician informs a patient, “there’s nothing I can do for you,” or “there’s no hope,” why would anyone want to embark on a course of toxic therapy?

Physicians often underestimate the power of their words, yet especially during the initial visit, these are all the patient has to go on. We need to choose our words very carefully. It’s important especially during that first encounter with a new patient to take some time to get to know the patient as a person. What are their fears? What kind of support system do they have? Can they even verbalize this information during the first visit, or are they so stunned and overwhelmed by their diagnosis that they don’t even know where to start.

In learning more about patients as individuals, we will be able to identify areas where we can really influence their response to therapy, in addition to whatever medical treatment is prescribed. Recognizing the emotional and spiritual changes that occur in patients as they go through therapy is just as important as recognizing physical changes. And by giving credibility to the body-mind-spirit connection, we can be in a position to help patients regain their health, in the fullest sense of the word.

This can be as simple as acknowledging that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness associated with being diagnosed with cancer at are normal. By taking the time to understand just how the individual patient responds to the stress of a life-threatening illness, we can make specific recommendations regarding effective complementary and coping strategies.

To patients: don’t be intimidated by your physician or be afraid to make all of your concerns known and have them addressed. If you feel that you aren’t being taken care of as a whole person, do not hesitate to get a second opinion. There are physicians who understand these concepts and will treat you as a person, not just as a disease or “interesting case.” Take some time and seek them out! Your health and life deserve this.

Tami Boehmer is a metastatic breast cancer survivor, speaker, blogger and author of From Incurable to Incredible: Cancer Survivors Who Beat the Odds. You can visit her at

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