Discussing cancer treatment with the terminal patient

For everything, there is a season…
– Ecclesiastes

“Are you giving up on me?” My patient looks at me severely. “There must be other treatment options! Aren’t there some experimental drugs out there? I have beaten this cancer twice before. Are you saying that I can’t beat it again?”

No one can ever know with absolute certainty whether my patient’s newly recurrent cancer might miraculously disappear with one more treatment. His recurrence, however, has developed very quickly and is growing very rapidly. New cancer nodules are developing weekly. I have never seen a patient with a cancer this aggressive have a meaningful, sustained response to further treatment. The research literature confirms my impression.

It is always difficult to know what to recommend. Although “no further treatment” is always an alternative, I routinely run through all of the options, reviewing whatever is available, and hoping that we land on the combination that offers that improbable, one-in-a-thousand cure. However unlikely, we sometimes set up appointments and hope for the best.

Today, though, my sense is that it is time to focus on new goals.

The decision not to pursue more studies and more treatment can be very, very difficult. Surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande in an essay in The New Yorker entitled “Letting Go,” writes about how difficult it can be for physicians and patients to halt cancer treatment as the end of life draws near. The dilemma, he concludes, “arises from a still unresolved argument about what the function of medicine really is — what, in other words, we should and should not be paying for doctors to do.” In Gawande’s view, the profession should equip and supply doctors and nurses “who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen …”

In most circumstances, this moment might be the first occasion that the patient hears a physician say clearly, “I do not think we should continue with the cancer treatment. It is time to stop focusing just on the cancer and spend more of our effort focusing on the rest of you.”

Those are very difficult words to say. On the other hand, I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to hear your physician utter them.

At some point, the topic of stopping cancer treatment must be approached clearly and compassionately. An essay by Albert Lim, MD, sent to me by a patient, reminds us that physicians often avoid these difficult discussions. We push on with futile treatments and expensive tests because “it is difficult to say ‘no’ in today’s world.” Coupled with our own doubts, the patient and family sometimes want us “to do something, anything, everything.” There are situations where we need to learn to think through the choices and then choose to do nothing.

A recently published article might help me navigate these difficult discussions in the future. Dr. Jennifer Temel and other cancer physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital followed two groups of patients who were suffering from advanced, uniformly fatal lung cancer. One group received “standard” cancer care with chemotherapy and aggressive treatment. The other group was offered the “standard” care but also met very early on with the Palliative Care team. Overall, the Palliative Care group went on to have less intense treatment, less futile cancer treatment near the end of life, an overall better quality of life, and significantly less depression. They were more likely to have talked with their relatives about their end-of-life wishes.

Surprisingly, the Palliative Care group, despite receiving less intense cancer treatment, also lived a bit longer! For this group of incurable cancer patients, less aggressive care actually resulted in longer and higher quality survival.

As the conversation wraps up, my patient reviews all of his options. His previous therapy was difficult and he is not interested in spending any more time at the hospital than absolutely necessary. He and his family go back and forth. Finally, they all decide against any further cancer treatment. They will continue the conversation at home.

I am relieved. He has made what I consider to be a good choice and appears to be at peace with the decision. The most difficult decision he and his family have ever had to make had, in the end, been simple. The time had arrived.

Bruce Campbell is an otolaryngologist who blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror.

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