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Waiting for biopsy results might not be healthy

March 9, 2009 |  1:17 pm

When the biopsy results arrive, the waiting will stop. You'll either resume your previous life with its commitments and deadlines and blessed routine. Or you'll begin a new life, one punctuated by blood tests and treatments and only sometimes controllable fear.

But the results aren't in yet. And so you wait, seemingly forever. To say that this state of not-knowing is stressful would be an understatement. To say that it could harm might not be.

In a study published in the March issue of Radiology, researchers periodically measured cortisol (commonly known as the stress hormone, though there are actually several) in the saliva of 126 women who had undergone breast biopsies and were awaiting the results.

At the end of the testing, those women who didn't yet have a final diagnosis had similar cortisol profiles as the women who had received a diagnosis of cancer.

As the abstract says: "Uncertainty about the final diagnosis ... is associated with substantial biochemical distress, which may have adverse effects on immune defense and wound healing. Results indicate the need for more rapid communication of biopsy results."

In other words, not knowing can negatively affect physical health -- and that's the last thing a person preparing to battle cancer needs.

And although many doctors don't like to deliver bad news over the phone, if a phone call is what it takes to end the uncertainty, then a phone call might be what is needed.

Writer Deborah Lewis makes the case for the compassionate phone call in a thoughtful essay on the benefits of hearing bad news -- "you have breast cancer" -- as soon as possible. In When getting cancer results over the phone is a good thing, she writes:

"There is no way of understanding the receipt of such tough news without understanding the particular torture involved in waiting for medical test results. Time slows down and becomes caustic. The mind fixates on floating scenarios unmoored to actual facts, intruding constantly into weak attempts at daily living.

If I am going through that slow drip of waiting, I want to end my torment as soon as possible."

Others who have awaited biopsy results would likely agree with Lewis. There's much to be said for knowing as soon as possible -- with a plan to discuss the matter in more depth immediately after the initial mind-frying shock has worn off.

Your mental and physical health might depend on it.

-- Tami Dennis