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Making Your Next Oncology Follow-up Less Scary

Follow up appointments can be scary and nerve-racking for patients anticipating potentially bad, or confusing, news. However, one survivor details steps to help with anxiety around oncology follow up appointments. 
PUBLISHED June 28, 2020
William Ramshaw resides in the expansive Pacific Northwest. He is a six-year survivor of pancreatic cancer and has written a memoir Gut Punched! Facing Pancreatic Cancer.
Just two weeks ago I had my umpteenth oncology follow-up. Once again, thankfully all rainbows.

After six years of these things, you’d think I wouldn’t find them so damn scary. But being a pancreatic cancer survivor, these things always scare the bejesus out of me. Nothing is more terrifying than sitting in one of those sterile exam rooms barricaded in by its cubicle-like beige walls waiting for “The Doctor” to come in. I always wonder will this be the appointment that starts with, “I’m sorry but….”

So, what do I do to make these things less scary, or at least tolerable, on my scary meter?

Brace up.

Being a former Navy-guy, I hated being braced up outside the Captain’s stateroom waiting to see him. Much like an oncologist office’s phone call, something is terrifying about the Captain’s call, or for that fact, any boss’s call. “Can you please come see me?” And much like going to see him, I have found seeing my oncologist to be more about things I amped up in my head about what is going to be said versus what was said. Nonetheless, I always brace up for the words, “I’m sorry but ….”

Don’t go alone.

Not that she wants to go with me any more than I want to go, I always drag my wife along. If you don’t have a partner in your corner, find someone, anyone, a bestie, even someone you just met but feel connected with. But don’t go alone.

There is so much information zipping through the air that it takes more than two ears to hear it, especially when someone is talking about your survival in medical jargon complete with Latin roots. Don’t go alone.

Go prepared.

On a small scrap of paper, I always jot down a quick health status along with my questions. Initially, my doctors found this amusing. They wanted to control my appointments, rather than letting me drive the conversation. My notes helped me not go blank. I read somewhere about something called the “white-coat syndrome” referring to someone’s blood pressure skyrocketing at their doctor’s office. For me, without my notes, everything is wiped out. As soon as the doctor walked in what I wanted to say or ask, was gone. I hated it when ten minutes later, I’d say, “Oh shoot! I forgot to ask ….” Go prepared.

Ask questions.

My doctor is there to answer my questions not to just expound to me what they know. Yes, there are questions I don’t want to ask because I fear my doctor’s matter of fact answers may terrify me. But in my mind, why wouldn’t I maximize the few minutes I have to find out about things my life depends on—especially from someone whose life’s work it is to understand cancer, my cancer. In most cases during our face-to-face chat, they’ve forgotten more about cancer then I’ll ever know. So, I ask question after question.

It’s my cancer.

If for some reason I find myself not playing well with a doctor I remember there are always others. Fighting cancer is a partnership, but I own it. Right now, I am fortunate to have great chemistry with my doctors, but I always remember it’s my cancer, not theirs.
These are just five ways I’ve found to make my oncology follow-ups less damn scary. I hope they’re helpful to you.
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