“The question” comes in several forms: “Doc, what stage is my cancer?” “What is my prognosis?” “Can it be cured?” “Am I going to die?” “Have long have I got?” #in #dox These tough honest words require courage. “The question” superficially asks for a simple answer. Time to live. However, in the real world of life and death, these questions and therefore the answers are far more complex and subtle.
ago we had a hospitalized patient who was dying. This woman’s cancer
was not growing, nor were there any new significant medical problems.
She was not clinically depressed or suicidal. She had not received some
toxic chemo cocktail. She was simply dwindling away. We sat down to
talk with her, to encourage her to rally. She reassured us that she was
not upset and she was in fact at peace. Why then was she dying? 180
days earlier a physician had told her she had six months to live. She
had accepted this prognostication. So, time up, game over, she died.
let’s be clear, she did not become despondent or “give up.” This
unfortunate patient listened to solid ridiculous medical advice and made
it reality. She was that unusual person who was so comfortable with
her own mortality that knowing death was coming she actuated the end of
life. I was taught two valuable lessons. Never underestimate the
incredible power of the human brain in the mind-body connection.
Second, be very careful how I answer “the question.”
shown that when estimating remaining time of life for a specific
person, most of the time doctors get it wrong. Of course, if you ask a
physician while they are actually performing CPR, they will probably get
it right, at least within a day or two. But, asked to estimate time of
survival for cancer, heart disease, end stage kidney disease, ALS or,
hardest of all, Alzheimer’s, doctors get it wrong. Now, I do not mean
wrong by a day, week, or month, I mean completely wrong. The error
often measured in months or even years. How can this be true? Disease
is highly variable between varied persons producing varying results and
death often comes from unexpected varied complications.
patient to expect an accurate statement of survival is not reasonable
and produces confusion, anxiety. Therefore, when a patient or family
asks “the question,” for what answer should they be looking?
Alternatively, put another way, what is the “right question?” The
question that may result in the best answer is, “Is this a curable
disease? If not what is likely to happen with this illness? What
events may occur? What complications are probable? Doctor, in your
personal experience, with all you have seen, what might future hold?”
doctor in answering either “the question” or perhaps the “right
question” must be aware of both his limitations, as well as the needs of
the patient. The physician’s limits include the reality that he is
not a deity and therefore cannot see the future. However, he has most
likely seen this illness many times and can offer a great deal to help
each family plan and cope. In order to deal with the future, it
requires a basic understanding of the course of the illness. Will the
patient get stronger? Will hospitalizations be likely? If there will
be pain, how will it be treated? Can the patient travel? What may be
the costs, physical limitations, choices of treatment, or psychological
impact? If this will be a chronic condition what will that mean for the
patient’s lifestyle? If this will be a fatal condition what may happen
near the end of life.
Patients rarely want to “know” a specific
survival time number when they ask “the question.” Except in the rare
circumstances “five months, three weeks, two days” never did anyone any
good. Nonetheless, patients have the right and need to plan their
life. It is theirs to live, not the physician’s to direct. By
providing empowering answers, the gift of control and comfort can be
some of the best therapy.
James C. Salwitz is an oncologist who blogs at Sunrise Rounds.