Some Decisions Aren't Right or Wrong; They're Just Devastating

Don S. Dizon, MD


April 28, 2023

There is one situation, while not common, that is often among the most difficult for me: the person who must be told at diagnosis that they are already dying. I am still reminded of a patient I saw early in my career.

A woman in her 40s was admitted to the hospital complaining of severe shortness of breath. In retrospect, she had been sick for months. She had not sought help because she was young and thought it would pass — the results of a "bad bug" that she just couldn't shake.

But in the past few weeks, the persistence of symptoms became associated with weight loss, profound fatigue, loss of appetite, and nausea.

By the time she was hospitalized she was emaciated, though she appeared pregnant — a sign of the fluid that had built up in her abdomen. Imaging showed that her abdomen was filled with disease (carcinomatosis) and her liver and lungs were nearly replaced with metastatic disease.

A biopsy revealed an aggressive cancer that had no identifying histologic marker: carcinoma, not otherwise specified, or cancer of unknown primary.

I still remember seeing her. She had a deer-in-headlights stare that held me as I approached. I introduced myself and sat down so we were eye to eye.

"Tell me what you know," I said.

"I know I have cancer and they don't know where it started. I know surgery is not an option and that's why they've asked you to come. Whatever. I'm ready. I want to fight this because I know I can beat it," she said.

I remember that she looked very sick; her thin face and arms contrasted with her large, distended abdomen. Her breathing was labored, her skin almost gray. For a moment I didn't know what to say.

As doctors, we like to believe that our decisions are guided by data: the randomized trials and meta-analyses that set standards of care; phase 2 trials that establish evidence (or lack thereof) of activity; case-control studies that suggest the impacts of treatment; and at the very least, case studies that document that "N of 1" experience. We have expert panels and pathways that lay out what treatments we should be using to help ensure access to quality care in every clinic on every corner of every cancer center in the United States.

These data and pathways tell us objectively what we can expect from therapy, who is at most risk for toxicities, and profiles of patients for whom treatment is not likely to be of benefit. In an ideal world, this objectivity would help us help people decide on an approach. But life is not objective, and sometimes individualizing care is as important as data.

In this scenario, I knew only one thing: She was dying. She had an overwhelming tumor burden. But I still asked myself a question that many in, and outside of, oncology ask themselves: Could she be saved?

This question was made even more difficult because she was young. She had her whole life ahead of her. It seemed incongruous that she would be here now, facing the gravity of her situation.

Looking at her, I saw the person, not a data point in a trial or a statistic in a textbook. She was terrified. And she was not ready to die.

I sat down and reviewed what I knew about her cancer and what I did not know. I went through potential treatments we could try and the toxicities associated with each. I made clear that these treatments, based on how sick she was, could kill her.

"Whatever we do," I said, "you do not have disease that I can cure."

She cried then, realizing what a horrible situation she was in and that she would no longer go back to her normal life. Indeed, she seemed to grasp that she was probably facing the end of her life and that it could be short.

"My concern is," I continued, "that treatment could do the exact opposite of what I hope it would do. It could kill you sooner than this cancer will."

Instead of making a treatment plan, I decided that it would be best to come back another day, so I said my goodbyes and left. Still, I could not stop thinking about her and what I should suggest as her next steps. My heart wanted to try treatment, give her a chance, even if it killed her. But my brain told me that treatment is not likely to work and may make her life even shorter.

I asked colleagues what they would suggest. Some recommended hospice care, others recommended treatment. Clearly, there was no one way to proceed.

One might wonder: Why is it so hard to do the right thing?

Ask any clinician and I think you will hear the same answer: because we do not have the luxury of certainty.

Am I certain that this person will not benefit from intubation? Am I certain that she has only weeks to live? Am I sure that there are no treatments that will work?

The answer to these questions is no — I am not certain. It is that uncertainty that always makes me pause because it reminds me of my own humanity.

I stopped by the next day to see her surrounded by family. After some pleasantries I took the opportunity to reiterate much of our conversation from the other day. After some questions, I looked at her and asked if she wanted to talk more about her options. I was prepared to suggest treatment, anticipating that she would want it. Instead, she told me she didn't want to proceed.

"I feel like I'm dying, and if what you have to give me isn't going to cure me, then I'd prefer not to suffer while it happens. You said it's up to me. I don't want it."

First, do no harm. It's one of the tenets of medicine — to provide care that will benefit the people who have trusted us with their lives, whether that be longevity, relief of symptoms, or helping them achieve their last wishes. Throughout one's life, goals might change but that edict remains the same.

But that can be difficult, especially in oncology and especially when one is not prepared for their own end of life. It can be hard for doctors to discuss the end of life; it's easier to focus on the next treatment, instilling hope that there's more that can be done. And there are people with end-stage cancer who insist on continuing treatment in the same circumstances, preferring to "die fighting" than to "give up." Involving supportive and palliative care specialists early has helped in both situations, which is certainly a good thing.

We talked a while more and then arranged for our palliative care team to see her. I wish I could say I was at peace with her decision, but I wasn't. The truth is, whatever she decided would probably have the same impact: I wouldn't be able to stop thinking about it.

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