A woman walks towards a giant phone with an alarming incoming call on its screen.

Hi, It's the Dermatologist's Office Calling With Your Results. Are You Alone?

I recently went to the dermatologist to have her look at two spots on my scalp that my hairdresser thought looked suspicious. Having had skin cancer in the past, I took it seriously when my hairdresser pointed to a spot on my scalp near the front of my head, and asked, “How long have you had that scab?  It looks a little dark and I don’t remember seeing it before.”  I went home and held a mirror up next to my scalp to look more closely at the spot my hairdresser had noticed, and I saw another spot too.

Given that this happened on a Saturday, I waited anxiously for the dermatologist’s office to open that Monday and made an appointment for two weeks out, the soonest I was able to get. But that appointment was canceled due to a hurricane – the office lost power. So I had to wait another three weeks for an appointment and I was a bit nervous.

Better safe than sorry

When I finally saw the dermatologist, she looked at the two spots on my scalp and said they didn’t look like skin cancer, and asked if I wanted her to biopsy them anyway. I, of course, said yes. As a moderator for Health Union, I’ve read countless articles and comments from advocates who say they insisted on having spots biopsied even when the doctor didn’t find them alarming looking, and they sometimes turned out to be cancerous. Having had two basal cell carcinomas in the past few years, I didn’t want to take any chances.

Waiting on results from the dermatologist

My dermatologist biopsied the two spots, and though I tried to put it out of my mind, I was only able to stay distracted for a short while, and I kept thinking of how it would look with bald patches on my head if I had to have surgery, and then my mind went to thoughts of surgery and possible hospitalization. My cell phone rang one week later. I was in the middle of work, but I picked up the phone and my heart started racing.

Good news but poor communication

“Hi, it’s _______ from _______ Dermatology, calling with results of your biopsy. Are you alone?”  I knew it had to be bad, why else would they ask if I was alone? I started pacing and telling myself it would be okay, they caught it early, it’s better to know than not know, and all the other positively themed statements I could think of. With my voice shaking, I said I was alone, and she told me the biopsies were benign, that I don’t have skin cancer.

I asked why she wanted to know if I was alone, and she said she wanted to tell me that the spots were psoriasis and how to treat them. I almost fainted with relief. And I’m not exaggerating. My thoughts went from how am I going to make time for Mohs surgery or another treatment and deal with it during the pandemic, to how am I going to work and have surgery and go to doctors and the hospital, to feelings of complete relief.

The importance of thoughtful communication from dermatologists

But then I got upset with the dermatologist’s office for making me scared for no reason. I began thinking about how important it is for health care professionals to deliver test results in a thoughtful manner. I have a friend who has had cancer twice, and when she was waiting for scan results after treatment for her second cancer, she told the doctor to call with results after 6 pm, when she would be home from work. She said she couldn’t deal with potentially bad news while at work.

Have any of you had what you would label thoughtful or appropriate conversations with health care professionals about test results or on the flip side, conversations that you feel could have been handled in a less distressing manner?

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