It’s not a bad thing. It’s an adaptive mechanism and positive outlooks can even be associated with better medical outcomes. There’s almost always a “but” if you look hard enough. And in the face of life-changing news, we are incentivized to look really, really hard.
Yet Mr. B caught me off guard because he wasn’t asking me to maintain hope. He was pushing me one step further.
At one point in our conversation, he revealed this clearly. “Doctor, I don’t even care if it’s false hope – just tell me the cancer will disappear.”
Mr. B was asking me to lie to him.
The last thing I wanted was to take away hope, closing the door on a future that truly was clouded in uncertainty. But I also couldn’t look him in the eye and tell him his incurable disease was, in fact, curable.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to phrase things kindly. Patients respond differently to “there’s a 90% chance of survival” and “there’s a 10% chance of death” even though the facts are identical.
When I sense a person like Mr. B is looking to me for hope, I try to frame that initial conversation in the style of the first statement. It’s not dishonest. With an already overwhelming piece of information, it’s choosing to share the most positive version of a narrative that can be told in many different ways and will evolve over time.
Moreover, being hopeful and realistic are not mutually exclusive. Just because someone is seeking the rare chance of a good outcome doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. It is possible to seek out experimental drugs while also considering hospice. It is possible to hope for a plan A while preparing for a plan B. Those are two compatible beliefs, and it’s OK – preferred, even – to hold them at once.
The challenge is avoiding getting pulled into an outlook that is not just positive, not just unlikely – but one with no basis in reality. There’s hope – and then there’s false hope. There’s a positive take – and then there’s lying. It can be a fine line, and with the intention of being kind it can be all too easy to “yes, but” our way into untruths.
The best we can do is set limits with compassion, and understand that telling the truth doesn’t always mean that someone hears it.
“Have you ever had a patient – I mean, someone like me, someone in my ... state ... get cured without any treatment?”
The chances of Mr. B’s cancer responding to chemotherapy were not good but hardly impossible. But without any therapy at all?
“I have not.”
“What about at other places ... in other states or countries. Have you ever heard of a person like me who was cured without treatment?”
“I have not.”
“I guess what I’m asking, Doctor, is ... have you ever seen where the cancer was there and then one day was not ... have you ever seen a miracle?”
“I have not.”
“Well,” he said, “Maybe I will be the first.”
We look at each other, pondering this. In my silence is the answer.
Dr. Yurkiewicz is a fellow in hematology and oncology at Stanford (Calif.) University. Follow her on Twitter.