Martha Boxer (not her real name) had mentally prepared herself that this could happen, but the news still hit hard. Her doctors on the leukemia service broke the facts as gently as we could: The chemotherapy she had been suffering through for the last 2 weeks hadn’t worked. The results of her latest bone marrow biopsy showed it remained packed with cancer cells.
As Martha absorbed the news quietly, her son, sitting next to her bedside with his hand on hers, spoke first. “What now?”
I looked at my attending and nodded, as we were fully ready to answer this question. From the outset, we knew that Martha’s leukemia carried a genetic mutation that unfortunately put her in a high-risk category. The chances of her cancer responding to the first round of chemotherapy were low. When this happens, what we typically do next is reinduction, we explained. It’s a different combination of chemotherapy drugs, with a somewhat different side effect profile. But it would give her the best chance of response, we believed. We could start the new chemotherapy as early as today, we said.
Martha took this in. “Okay,” she said pensively. “I’ve been thinking. And I think maybe … I won’t do chemotherapy anymore.”
Her words caught me off guard because, frankly, they seemed premature. Her leukemia had not budged with the first round of treatment. But we still had an option B, and then an option C. It was usually at a later, more dire stage – when multiple lines of treatment had not worked, and instead had only caused harm – or, when the decision was forced by the medical system’s admission that we had nothing left to offer – that I’d heard patients express similar preferences. It was then that I’d seen patients and their loved ones flip a mental switch and choose to focus the time they had left on what really mattered to them.
It didn’t feel like we were at that point.
And so, as we debriefed outside her room, my first instinct was to convince her otherwise.
However, Martha had other priorities, as I would come to learn. Above all else, she hated the hospital. She hated feeling trapped in a strange room that wasn’t hers; she hated how the chemotherapy stole her energy and made her feel too weak to even shower. She wanted to be in her own home. She wanted to eat her own food, sleep in her own bed, and be surrounded by what she recognized.
But, she also wanted to live. Two paths lay ahead of her. It was a trade-off of more suffering with a small chance at remission, versus accepting no chance of cure but feeling well for as long as she could. She soon clarified that she wasn’t definitely against chemotherapy. She couldn’t decide. She needed more information from us to make this decision, the hardest of her life.
Over the next few days, I watched as our attending physician expertly provided just that. There were actually three options, she laid out. There was aggressive chemotherapy, entailing at least 3 more weeks in the hospital and coming with significant risk of infection, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. The chances of inducing a remission were about one in three to one in two, and that remission would likely last between several months and 2 years before the leukemia would relapse. The second option was a chemotherapy pill she could take at home, an option with fewer side effects but no longer aimed at cure. The third option was home hospice support, focused on symptoms, without any anticancer medication.
I noticed a few things during those conversations. I noticed how my attending took a navigator role, not pushing Martha in one direction or another, but rather imparting all the relevant information to empower Martha to decide for herself. I noticed how she provided realistic estimates, not hedging away from numbers, but giving the honest, nitty-gritty facts, as best as she could predict. I noticed how she took the time and never rushed, even in spite of external pressures to discharge the patient from the hospital.
There was no right or wrong answer. I no longer felt that we had something in our grasp – a clear-cut, best decision – to persuade Martha toward. Is one in three good odds, or bad odds? Is 2 years a long period of time, or a short one? Of course, there is no actual answer to these questions; the answer is as elusive and personal as if we had asked Martha: What do you think?
What I learned from Martha is that, with a devastating diagnosis, there isn’t a right time to make this decision. There isn’t one defining moment where we flip a switch and change course. It isn’t only when we run out of treatment options that the choice to forgo it makes sense. That option is on a flexible line, different for every person and priority. As my attending later said, with Martha’s diagnosis and her values, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to decide against chemotherapy from the start.
The language we use can sometimes mask that reality. As doctors, we may casually slip in words like “need” and “have to” in response to patients’ questions about what to do next. “You need more chemotherapy,” we might say. “We’d have to treat it.” We have “treatment,” after all, and so we go down the line of offering what’s next in the medical algorithm. That word, too, can be deceivingly tempting, enticing down a road that makes it seem like the obvious answer – or the only one. If the choices are treatment versus not, who wouldn’t want the treatment? But the details are where things get murky. What does that treatment involve? What are the chances it will work, and for how long?
Surreptitiously missing from this language is the fact that there’s a choice. There’s always a choice, and it’s on the table at any point. You can start chemotherapy without committing to stick it out until the end. You can go home, if that is what’s important to you. The best treatment option is the one the patient wants.
After 4 days, Martha decided to go home with palliative chemotherapy and a bridge to hospice. Each member of our team hugged her goodbye and wished her luck. She was nervous. But she packed her hospital room, and she left.
I recently pulled up her medical chart, bracing myself for bad news. But the interesting thing about hospice is that even though the focus is no longer on prolonging life, people sometimes live longer.
She felt well, the most recent palliative note said. She was spending her time writing, getting her finances in order, and finishing a legacy project for her grandchildren.
For Martha, it seemed to be the right choice.
Dr. Yurkiewicz is a fellow in hematology and oncology at Stanford (Calif.) University. Follow her on Twitter @ilanayurkiewicz.