She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer 2 years ago. Surgery and countless infusions of chemotherapy, with no sustained remissions, have not deterred her from continuing to work in her studio. Options for treatment are now limited as is her energy level.
Her doctor has requested a medical humanist consult to assess this patient’s understanding of treatment options and prognosis. “I was not prepared,” she tells me, “to hear my doctor say ‘I hoped I would not have to have this conversation with you.’”
A patient with advanced lung cancer asked his oncologist about how many years he could expect to live. The doctor replied, “How would you feel about 10 years?” The patient confessed he would be pleased with that prediction even though he had a hunch that it was too optimistic.
In 2002, around the time that the Writing is Good Medicine® program was launched at the cancer center in Bennington, the Center for Communication in Medicine was also offering the Doctors Conversation Hour to hospital physicians.
I am struck by the similarity between anxieties precipitated by the current COVID-19 crisis and facing cancer. In each, there’s a feeling of not being in control and an uncertainty about the future. These emotions often linger and can be difficult to manage.
Ventilators and their vital role in saving lives of COVID-19 patients are ever present in the news. Listening to these compelling stories brought to mind an experience with a patient as he weighed the use of a breathing machine in his end of life care.
“In times of crisis we summon our strength…
call on every resource…every forgotten image… every memory that can make us know our power.” – Muriel Rukeyser
How does one live with uncertainty when facing a life-threatening illness? Where does one find inner strength? Where does one look for supportive resources? Most patients will tell you that they frequently ask themselves these questions.
Adrienne Barnes, a nurse diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, was featured in “Voices From The Lived World of Illness,” a video produced by the Center for Communication in Medicine. During the interview she shared her frustrations when her doctor tells her “there’s really nothing I can do for you.”