Why I Lied to My Doctor

Lies - crossed fingersEven people who are generally honest and trustworthy may lie on occasion. Maybe they want to avoid something unpleasant: Sorry, boss. There was a road accident and that’s why I’m late. (I overslept.) I wish I could go to the collectibles exhibition, but I have the most awful headache. (Nothing bores me more than other people’s hobbies.)

Sometimes people lie to make it easier to get something they want: Excuse me for staring at you, but I’m a photographer and you have the most striking facial structure. (I want to sleep with you.) One golden ager’s ticket please. (I won’t qualify for five more years, but why not get a discount if I can?) And so on. These are lies that people tell to get some kind of benefit.

But even people who lie habitually, unless they have mental health issues, will not usually tell a lie to their own detriment. What would be the point of that?

So why do so many people lie to their doctors when the doctor needs accurate information to diagnose and treat them? I’m not talking about drug seekers or disability fraudsters. Those lies are clearly being told in order to get something they want.  No, I’m talking about the generally honest person who is not scrupulously honest with their own doctor. Yes, I’m taking the medicine exactly as you prescribed it. (When I remember.) I don’t know why I gained weight; I’m following the diet sheet, but it’s just not working. (I cut back a little bit.) I exercise regularly. (I went to the gym last week and I’m planning to go again soon.)


I can’t speak for all those other people, so I’ll just talk about why I lied to my oncologist. It has to do with conflict.

Conflict can be divided into three types. Approach-approach conflicts are choices between two good alternatives. Do you want to travel to the mountains or the seaside? We choose the one that is most attractive. In approach-avoidance conflicts, a single decision has both positive and negative consequences. We are offering you a new position with more seniority and higher pay, but you will have to relocate to another region. Decisions involving approach-avoidance conflict are often stressful. The final decision will usually depend on whether the positive or negative aspects are stronger.

The third type is called avoidance-avoidance. Here we have to make a decision between two undesirable alternatives, and this can be very stressful. An extreme example was seen during World War II when mothers were sometimes forced to choose which one of their children would be killed. A banal example would be having a list of unpleasant chores to accomplish and choosing which one to undertake.

So I lied.

Back to me and my oncologist. We never had a very good relationship. She had certain ideas about me that were not accurate, and I’m sure I had some wrong ideas about her, too. She can be quite forceful and even controlling, and I tend to avoid conflict even to the point of capitulating and going off later to brood and grind my teeth in frustration.

Given this dynamic, it should not be surprising that at times I would be faced with an avoidance-avoidance conflict. I could answer her question (or ask my own question) honestly and receive a scolding, or I could lie and avoid the scolding with the consequence that my doctor would make treatment decisions based on inaccurate data. After a few years, I found that the prospect of a scolding caused me more discomfort than the inner dissonance of lying did, so I tried to tell her what I thought she wanted to hear. Obviously, this was not a wise decision.

It was still a stressful situation. It eventually became stressful enough to contribute to my decision to stop seeing her (but was not the only factor). I haven’t been to a new oncologist yet, but I’m not going to try to blame that on the unpleasantness of this first relationship. As it happens, I’ve found that my general stress level is lower without frequent checkups and scans, and I have decided not to have any treatment other than pain management at this point. If and when that changes, I will look for an oncologist who will be a better match, and I will do my best to be appropriately open with her.

Image copyright: 123RF Stock Photo

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22 Responses

  1. Colleen says:

    Wow, do I know where you are coming from! For me, the lies are more to avoid going back on chemotherapy (my last dance we chemo ended with me in a hospice facility celebrating my son’s 15th birthday.) “The pain isn’t too bad.” I’m fine, FINE I tell you. Ah, but now that has tripped me up. Oh boy, am I not fine. I’ve finally come to realize there’s no way I can continue working full time. And my onc? She refuses to complete the required paperwork for a disability retirement and “put her license on the line.” Aaaaarrrggghhhh!

  2. emma says:

    Do you think you would have lied if you had had a good relationship with her? No scolding.

  3. Knot Telling says:

    I am quite sure I would not have.
    I have a good relationship with my GP. I have no problem being honest with him about my shortcomings or asking questions because he always treats me with dignity, respect and a little humor – even when we vehemently disagree.

  4. Kathi says:

    Scolding is not an appropriate therapeutic response. Shame on her. If a patient is not following one’s advice, then there’s something about that advice that’s not working. I’m saying that as a clinician and as a patient. She may have scolded out of the best intentions — wanting you to feel better, concern for your well-being — but it’s still inappropriate.

    I’ve had to fire a few docs in my day. Good for you for quitting that onc, Knot. You’ll seek out further help when you think you need it. You’re a grownup. You get to do what you want.

    xoxo, Kathi

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thanks, Kathi. Scolding wasn’t the worst of it. She also mocked me and the day she did that she called me at home in the evening to yell at me some more. Everyone has bad days, but that was way out of line.

      Thank you for the support, sweet one.

  5. Elizabeth J. says:

    I guess I have been blessed in oncologists, because I find it hard to even imagine. My radiation oncologist even took one of his residents aside for a talk when she hurt my feelings. My medical oncologist always has this gentle calm demeanor that I can’t imagine lying to.
    I know some other women whose oncologists scold. I don’t think I could handle that.
    It is too bad you couldn’t have had an oncologist with a gentler temperament.

  6. Maxine D says:

    Oh Knots, I had wondered if you had been back to your oncologist, or had found another. I can appreciate your choices, even if they may not be ones that I might make. I say might, as one never truly knows what the future may hold, or how one may react.
    Blessings and prayers

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thank you, Maxine.
      No, I don’t see myself going back to her. Right now I don’t see myself going back into treatment since I have a reasonable quality of life, no treatment will cure the cancer, and the side effects will decrease my QOL.

  7. Renn says:

    Oooh I so relate to the scolding physician! Though I think I’ve been scolded for being too open rather than not being truthful. My internist and I did a dance of rapid-fire question and answer sessions each time I saw him. I always arrived with a long list of questions; he always had a long list of medical/scientific explanations for my concerns. And I always left his office feeling bombarded, minimized and unheard. Finally decided I ain’t going back. Found a new doc but haven’t made an appointment. Am in avoidance mode. Thanks for writing about the prickly relationships we have with our docs!

    • Knot Telling says:

      One of the things I love about my GP is that he never talks down to me, and I pretty much never feel that he doesn’t hear me.

  8. Rebecca says:

    I find it so important to be able to have a good open relationship with your Onco because these are the people who you count on to save your life. I am sorry you have been having issues with yours.

    I am still trying to figure out mine since she was ready to let me go after only two years of been treated, because I was on remission. There was nothing else she could do except having me get tested twice a year. Of course, I told her that was not going to happen so I am still seeing her. I do sense a level of separation with her at times – like she doesn’t want to get emotionally close to me. And sometimes I need a hug?

    I have lied to my Doctors, specifically about exercising. But it was not so much because I didn’t want them “upset” with me, it was more about me been reminded I was doing “the wrong thing” and about the consequences of those things. So I cover my ears at that moment and sing “la la la la la la…yes, yes.” I think it’s normal to do this because we seek a level of freedom that has been taken away from us with our cancer diagnosis.

    Best of luck to you in finding a new Onco you can fully trust. xo

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thank you for sharing that, Rebecca.

      I can imagine that being in remission could create a high level of anxiety.

  9. Gail Speers says:

    my first onc I loved, but she retired. Her replacement was hot off the press and lacked patient communication skills, was threatened by info I found online to discuss with her, we were a bad combination of oil and water. Changing meant also leaving the hospital where I was being treated, where I had such great relationships with so many staff from chemo nurses to the CAT Scan clinic admin. A v tough choice so many years into a Stage IV dx. But I did change. Luckily during a period of stability which has given me time to get to know new onc (I actively looked for recommendations for an onc at cancer centre nearer to me) and other staff and to understand how the system works. I was looking for an integrated range of services, where diff Drs would be able to meet my needs and communicate well with each other about my case. I am glad I did this. My friend, head nurse at old hospital, congratulated me on the courage to make the switch, saying most people don’t do it even tho they are not happy with their Dr… It is all about chemistry and understanding one another. My new onc respects my intelligence AND understands that stress affects my cognitive ability due to chemo brain…. Sometimes I can list all details of my history, sometimes I can’t … She gets it, and how frustrating it is to live with this. Good luck… I suggest looking for recommendations soon… Treat it like a reverse job hunt… You are looking for right team to meet your needs! Gail

  10. Riaz Khan says:

    I did not had good rapport with my GP and felt she felt uneasy when I used to ask questions on her diagnosis. I was some how diagnosed TB by my GP on certain lab reports done on me after my trip to sub continent. This made me go in extreme anxiety. Once more lab reports came which were requested by infectious disease expert, it turned out total negative. But I went through with extreme torture for one week. This happened very much in West Houston Medical Center. Infectious specialist was surprised that how my GP mis diagnosed me.

    • Knot Telling says:

      What a difficult experience – so much unnecessary anxiety! Have you changed to a different GP?

  11. Mandi says:

    I have a tendency to glamorize the truth. Claim to be in less pain than I am. Say things are better than they are. My mom insists on going to my appointments to rat me out. *sigh*

    It may be worth finding someone else if it comes to that as you noted.

    • Knot Telling says:

      Thanks for sharing, Mandi. So many of us do the same thing as you. Sorry, but I’m on Team Mom. 😉

      Yes, I fired her.

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