Do You Understand your Prognosis

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

AUGUST 09, 2017

Understanding your cancer prognosis is a difficult, painful and charged topic; one that I struggle with weekly as I talk to many women. Of course miracles sometimes happen (but, remember that they would not be miracles if they were frequent), and of course hope is vital for us all. But I also believe that it is vital that we understand our situation in a realistic (and hopeful) way. To use the old cliche, it often is a time to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Let me give you two examples that have happened in the last couple of weeks. One is a woman who is completing adjuvant therapy for breast cancer. She does not have the earliest possible variety, but she most certainly has a cancer that may well be cured by the treatment she is receiving. She is convinced that the cancer will quickly recur and she will die. Nothing reassures her. Of course, in Cancer World. we know that no one gets a promise, and it is unethical and incorrect to make completely reassuring (as in, of course the cancer won't kill you) statements no matter what the situation. In her case, it would serve her much better to be authentically hopeful, to move forward with her life as though she will stay well, and to try to push back her terrors. I hope that time will help her with this strategy.

On the other end of the spectrum, I spoke with a woman who does have metastatic disease. Although her doctor has been painfully honest with her re the likely duration, she is looking for more reassurance that she can live many years. How wonderful it would be to be able to give her what she wants. The reality, unfortunately, is that she may do way better than her doctor has suggested, but it would be living in complete denial to count on that outcome.My belief is that she would be best served by moving forward with hopefulness, but by considering all major decisions through two lenses: the maybe I will live a very long time one, and the maybe my life will be shorter than I hope alternative.

No one every knows how long someone will live. In Cancer World, it comes down to how sensitive the cancer cells are to the drugs being used. We can never predict with certainty how effective any one treatment will be. I have worked with too many families who were taken unaware by the end, who somehow believed that life was going to continue for a long time when the doctors well knew the unlikelihood of that scenario. Their grief and crisis was worse because of the shock. Had they been more honestly informed and had better understood what was happening, it is likely that everyone could have been a bit better prepared. Patients and their families deserve the truth. Of course they also deserve not to know if that is their frankly stated choice -- although my caveat here is that it behooves the doctor to be certain that both the patient and the family share this perspective. They may not.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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