The diagnosis was straightforward. My patient’s reaction was not.
One Saturday evening, I receive a call from the emergency room about a man with a very high white blood cell count. For the past 7 years, he had chronic myeloid leukemia – a cancer, but one of the few that can be well controlled for years. The discovery of the medications that can do it revolutionized care for the disease.
For the last 7 years, Mr. C didn’t take that medication regularly. He was young, with no other medical problems, and this was the only medication he was supposed to take. But his use was sporadic at best.
What was it, I wondered? Cost? Side effects? Not understanding the seriousness of having leukemia? No, the medication was fully covered by his insurance. No, he tolerated it well. Instead, his on-and-off medication schedule came across as a strange sense of apathy. He didn’t seem to recognize his agency in his own life.
Now, not only is his white count extremely high, but the majority are the cancerous cells. I look at his blood under the microscope – blasts everywhere. He has progressed from a chronic, indolent disease that can be kept at bay into the dreaded blast crisis, which is essentially an acute leukemia but even more challenging to treat.
It is very serious. I tell him this. “I am worried your leukemia has progressed into what we call a blast crisis,” I say. “Has anyone ever talked to you about this before?”
“Hmm, I think Dr. M may have said something,” he says. His medical chart over the last 7 years was populated with notes from his hematologist documenting their discussions of this possibility.
“This is serious,” I continue. “You will need to come into the hospital and we need to start medication to lower your white count. Otherwise you could have a stroke.”
“As the white count comes down, your cells will break open and the chemicals in them can make you very sick. So we will have to check your blood often to watch for this.”
“And we will change your chemotherapy pill.” I pause, letting it sink in, then repeat for emphasis: “This is very serious.”
“Sure thing, Doc.”
“I know I’ve said a lot. What are your thoughts?”
He looks at his wife, then back at me. He seems unfazed. Just as unfazed as when his hematologist warned this could happen. Just as unfazed as the day he learned his diagnosis.
He smiles and shrugs. “What will be, will be.”
As I listened to him, I honestly couldn’t tell if this was the best coping mechanism I had ever seen or the worst.
On one hand, his apathy had hurt him, clearly and indisputably. Refusing to acknowledge his agency in his medical outcomes allowed him to be cavalier about taking the cure. The cure was in a bottle on his kitchen shelf, an arm’s reach away, and he chose to reach elsewhere.
On the other hand, it was unusual to see someone so at peace with being so critically ill. His acceptance of his new reality was refreshing. There were no heartbreaking questions about whether this was his fault. There was no agonizing over what could have been. His apathy gave him closure and his loved ones comfort.
I’ve written before about how a cancer diagnosis involves holding two seemingly competing ideas in one’s mind at once. Last month, I wrote about how it is possible to be realistic about a grim prognosis while retaining hope that a treatment may work. I discussed that realism and hopefulness are compatible beliefs, and it’s okay – preferred, even – to hold them at once.
Mr. C’s strange sense of apathy made me think about another mental limbo, this one involving control. As doctors and patients, we like when we have agency over outcomes. Take these medications, and you will be okay. Undergo this procedure, and you will reduce your risk of recurrence. At the same time, poor outcomes still occur when everything is done “right.” When that happens, it can be psychologically beneficial to relinquish control. Doing so discards the unhelpful emotions of guilt and blame in favor of acceptance.
Mr. C’s apathy seemed to be present from day 1. But now, in a dire blast crisis, what was once a harmful attitude actually became a helpful one.
His “what will be, will be” attitude wasn’t inherently maladaptive; it was ill timed. Under the right circumstances, well-placed apathy can be leveraged as a positive coping mechanism.
But alas, if only there were a switch to turn on the right emotion at the right time. There’s no right or wrong or sensible reaction to cancer. There’s only a swirl of messy, overwhelming feelings. It’s trying to bring effective emotions to light at the right time while playing whack-a-mole with the others. It’s cognitive dissonance. It’s exhausting. Cancer doesn’t create personalities; it surfaces them.
It’s the last day of Mr. C’s hospitalization. His blast crisis is amazingly under good control.
“So,” I say. “Will you take your medications now?”
“Sure,” he says instinctively. I look at him. “I mean, honestly, Doc? I’m not sure.”
As we shake hands, I wonder if I’ll ever truly understand Mr. C’s motivations. But I can’t wonder too long. I can only control my part: I hand him his medications and wish him luck.
Minor details of this story were changed to protect privacy.
Dr. Yurkiewicz is a fellow in hematology and oncology at Stanford (Calif.) University. Follow her on Twitter @ilanayurkiewicz.