Good ways to break bad news

29 Apr 2009

“DORA AND ANDREW ARKALIS will never forget receiving the news,” began a recent article on childhood cancer in the Age. The couple had taken their four-year-old son, Michael, to the Royal Children’s Hospital to have recurring headaches diagnosed, and a registrar brought them a scan of their boy’s head. “The doctor said, ‘Michael’s got a brain tumour. It’s the size of a golf ball: we don’t know what sort of tumour it is, we don’t know if it’s aggressive, but we think it’s inoperable.’ He said it just like that,” Andrew told the newspaper.

Unfortunately, what Andrew Arkalis describes is not unusual. Search the internet and you’ll find similar stories. “I wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot stick,” one distressed mother recalled being told by an orthopaedic surgeon about her chronically ill daughter. “Isn’t it well known that you don’t deliver bad news on a Friday afternoon?” wrote another woman, Lisa, after her husband was given the diagnosis of motor neurone disease – an incurable disorder of the nervous system – on the Friday before a long weekend. With an appointment made to see the neurologist the following Tuesday to discuss the possibility of counselling, Lisa and her husband went home, shocked and unsupported, to spend “the blackest night of our lives.” Lisa’s testimonial also includes the telling observation that, while the neurologist was giving them the diagnosis, a nurse and an electrician entered the room several times to check on some electrical work that was being completed.

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