Hard Questions



One evening as the oncology fellow on call, I received a phone call from the ICU fellow.

“Can you meet me in the emergency room?” he asked. “I want to make sure we’re on the same page.”

A patient we had discharged from the hospital 2 days before was back. He had metastatic stomach cancer that had spread into his lungs and the lymph nodes in his chest. While he was in the hospital, he had required several liters of oxygen to maintain a normal work of breathing.

But now, he was in the emergency room, he was requiring a full face mask to help him breathe – and his oxygen levels were still dropping.

The ICU had been called. The next step along the algorithm of worsening breathing would be intubation. They would have to sedate him, put a breathing tube down his throat, and connect him to a ventilator to keep him alive.

But they didn’t want to do that if he was dying from his cancer.

Hence the call to me. My job, as the oncologist on call, was to answer the question: Is he dying?

Specifically, that meant weigh in on his cancer prognosis. Put his disease into context. Does he have any more options, chemotherapy or otherwise?

As an oncology fellow, I’ve found this to be one of the most common calls I get. Someone is critically ill and they need something to survive – maybe it’s intubation; maybe it’s surgery. The patient also happens to have metastatic cancer. The question posed to me is: Should we proceed?

Dr. Ilana Yurkiewicz is a fellow at Stanford (Calif.) University.

Dr. Ilana Yurkiewicz

It’s also one of the most difficult calls. Because doctors are historically bad at prognosticating. Because often I’m meeting the patient for the first time. Because the decision is huge and often final, and because both options are bad.

Suppose I say he has a good year or 2 ahead of him, and we intubate him – and then he never comes off the ventilator. We are eventually forced to withdraw care, and to the family it’s as though they are killing their father. It’s traumatic; it’s painful; and it deprives someone of a comfortable passing. Suppose I say he is dying from his cancer and we decide against a breathing tube. If I am wrong in that direction, a person’s life is cut short. It’s a perfect storm of high risk and low certainty.

Many people with metastatic cancer say they wouldn’t want invasive treatment near the end of life. But how do we know when it’s the end? There is still a moment when you must determine: Is this it? The truth is it’s not always clear.

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