I'm wondering what you might think about something. My uncle, who was 56, recently died of lung cancer. He'd only been diagnosed three months before that, and it all happened very fast. But I couldn't help but think, as I watched him waste away, that he might have been better off if the doctors hadn't told him his prognosis. They basically told him he had six months to live, and I'm sure he would have said, if asked, that he preferred to know the truth. But this was a guy who'd been extremely active his whole life, a jock who'd once tried out for the New York Yankees. And when he found out he didn't have long to live, a part of him seemed to die right then. Why do doctors tell patients they're going to die when there's nothing they can do about it?
Cry Uncle: Well, first of all, my condolences. May your uncle rest in peace, and may you, over time, come to remember him more for the way he lived than the way he died. My mother died of lung cancer a few years ago, and although she never tried out for the New York Yankees, she was what I'll call a force of nature, fully prepared to blow over whatever stood in her way. But when she was handed a death sentence, she seemed to get immediately smaller and weaker. And that whole last phase of her life - she died exactly six months after being given six months to live - became a matter of sitting around and waiting for the end. She dutifully went for her chemo and radiation treatments, but she was pretty much devoid of hope.
The thing is, if you'd asked her, at any time, whether she was glad she was told her prognosis, she'd have said yes. She couldn't stand other people knowing something she didn't know, for one thing. But people also just want to know how they're doing - even older people, whom you might expect wouldn't mind hearing a little white lie or two. We want to know, damn it, which is one of the reasons the medical profession, after centuries of hemming and hawing, now gives it to us straight. Exactly how they tell us might leave something to be desired. One of my favorite movie scenes of all time is in Terms of Endearment, where a doctor is revealing the news to Shirley Maclaine that her daughter, Debra Winger, has cancer. "At a time like this, I always tell people to hope for the best and prepare for the worst," he says. To which Shirley, clearly disgusted, says, "And they let you get away with that?"
Compare that to my mother's doctor, who went on and on about various X-rays and MRIs without seeming to notice that my mother - a living, breathing human being - was sitting right there, having just gotten the worst news of her life. But at least there was no canned sentiment. And besides, she wanted to know! It's only in the last few decades that people have routinely gotten to know, by the way. Babe Ruth (speaking of Yankees) wasn't told he was dying of cancer. And Lou Gehrig wasn't told that he was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease. In both cases, they knew something was drastically wrong with them, but they didn't know it was terminal. Then again, why would you totally bum somebody out who already knows there's something drastically wrong?
Because he wants to know! Gehrig asked for the truth from virtually every doctor who ever treated him, and not one of them gave it to him straight-up. Back then, it was considered bad medicine to reveal a terminal diagnosis. Now it's considered bad medicine not to. And although I understand what you're saying about your uncle, I have to believe that he would have been worse off not knowing. The outcome would have been the same, but instead of rounding toward home he would have been sitting on the bench, waiting to hear the final score.
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