Many Terminally Ill Patients Believe Chemo Might Cure Them


Metastatic (stage IV) colon cancer and lung cancer are fatal incurable illnesses. That doesn’t just mean they are life-threatening. A fatal incurable illness is one which has zero survivors. You don’t know anyone who had metastatic colon or lung cancer who survived and is no longer ill.

Chemotherapy is still occasionally used in such cases and sometimes can prolong life by a few months. Chemotherapy might also help temporarily alleviate some of the symptoms caused by the cancer. But what chemotherapy never does in these cases is cure the disease. The distinction is important because chemotherapy itself frequently has serious and uncomfortable side effects and patients who are considering undergoing it should understand the benefits they may gain.

” target=”_blank”>An accompanying editorial ponders the possibilities. Might the oncologists not be giving patients an honest explanation of their prognosis? Prior studies show that most oncologists give bad news honestly, so that is not likely to account for the majority of patients misunderstanding the goals of treatment. Perhaps patients actually know that a cure is impossible and have discussed this with their doctors and their families but are reluctant to share this painful realism with a researcher who is a stranger. Perhaps many patients heard the bad news and chose not to believe it.

Certainly some selection bias is involved. The study, after all, interviewed only patients who chose to undergo chemotherapy. That would include whichever patients were most likely to ignore bad news or exaggerate the possible benefits of treatment. Those who were mostly likely to accept bad news and minimize the possible benefits of treatment were the most likely not to have pursued chemotherapy and would not have been included in the study.

The distressing possibility is that many of the patients surveyed are fooling themselves. In other facets of life self-deception might be beneficial, or at least harmless. (“I look terrific.” “I think I’ll do great in this interview.”) But in this case patients with limited time are choosing to spend that time in healthcare facilities experiencing side effects instead of at home (or on vacation) with loved ones.

One final worrisome finding is that the patients who reported better scores for how well their physician communicated with them were less likely to give accurate responses for the goals of chemotherapy. That means that patients who best understood that chemotherapy could not cure them reported that their physicians were worse communicators than patients who misunderstood their likelihood of cure. Does telling bad news inevitably strain the physician-patient relationship? Do patients bond best with physicians who misinform them with optimism or allow them to misunderstand important aspects of their care?

As patient satisfaction surveys begin to play a larger role in physician compensation we may ironically find that doctors will be increasingly paid to cater to patients’ unstated desire for misinformation.

Learn more:

” target=”_blank”>Study: We overestimate how much medicine can do (Washington Post, Wonkblog)
” target=”_blank”>Talking with Patients about Dying (New England Journal of Medicine editorial)

Important legal mumbo jumbo:
Anything you read on the web should be used to supplement, not replace, your doctor’s advice.  Anything that I write is no exception.  I’m a doctor, but I’m not your doctor.