Thoughts on What to Tell the Patient with Cancer

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THE welfare of the entire patient as well as the treatment of his disease is the concern of the physician. To permit rapport between physician and patient, and to evoke intelligent cooperation in the therapeutic program, the patient usually must possess some knowledge of his disease. When a patient has cancer, the skillful and sympathetic interpretation of the disease may be for him the most important factor in the management of his case, and may demand the utmost delicacy, sensitivity, and sense of timing from his physician.

No set formula is to be followed as to what the physician tells the patient. Adherence to a specific policy such as—always tell a patient he has cancer— is as faulty as rigid observance of the opposite policy of—never tell a patient he has cancer. Indiscriminate application of the first policy may add unnecessary anxiety to physical suffering in a patient who neither wants nor needs the information. Indiscriminate application of the second policy may deprive him of information vital to his future.

Surgeons, and other physicians, who have occasion to treat many patients with malignant disease, generally develop a talent for handling this problem. It is usual for them fully to inform the patient who inquires about his illness or who must know for reasons of business or family responsibilities, but to inform him in such a way and at such a time that a major emotional upset is avoided. Often the patient has suspected the true diagnosis, sometimes for . . .



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