Diagnosed too late


It had only been 3 weeks since I first met this patient. She presented with an advanced case of colon cancer, but instead of treatment, we had to have a serious talk about death and dying and the goals of care. She died soon after our talk.

Within the course of 2 weeks I saw another new patient, but this time with pancreatic cancer that metastasized to the liver. “When can we start treatment?” he asked. Like my female patient with colon cancer, he was diagnosed too late as he was already in an incurable stage. He was shocked to learn that his condition was in stage 4, that achieving remission would be difficult and a cure, not likely. Certainly, standard of care treatments and clinical trials offered him hope, but they were unlikely to change the outcome.

We take a course in this – that is, in giving bad news, but every doctor has his or her own approach. Some are so uncomfortable with the talk, they choose avoidance and adopt the “look like you gotta go approach.” Or, the doctor may schedule another treatment or another test with the intention of avoiding end-of-life discussions. Other doctors opt for straight talk: “I think you should get your affairs in order. You’ve got 3 months to live.” These are extreme behaviors I wouldn’t recommend.

In my practice, I sit with my patients and explain the diagnosis. After discussing all options and the advanced stage and diagnosis, it ultimately comes down to “Win or lose, I will be here to take care of you.” Sometimes there is therapy that may help, but either way, the patient understands that death is a real possibility.

I find that people just want to know if there is hope. A different treatment regimen or a clinical trial may (or may not) extend their life. And while we cannot predict outcomes, we can give them hope. You can’t shut down hope. True for some people the cup is always half empty, but most people want to live and are optimistic no matter how small the chances are.

These conversations are very difficult. I don’t like them, but then I don’t avoid them either. Fortunately, patients don’t usually come to my office for the first visit presenting with advanced disease. In the cases I described above, one patient had been experiencing unexplained weight loss, but didn’t share it with a physician. And, for the patient with pancreatic cancer, other than some discomfort in the last couple of weeks, the disease was not associated with other symptoms. But the absence of symptoms should not in any way rule out a malignant disease. A diagnosis should be based on a complete evaluation of signs and symptoms followed by testing.

We’ve got to be able to take the time to listen to our patients during these encounters. We may not spend as much time as we should because we’re so busy now and we’re slaves to EMRs. It helps if we take more time to probe symptoms a little longer, especially in the primary care setting.

It is possible for a patient with cancer to be asymptomatic up until the later stages of the disease. A study published in ESMO Open in 2020 found that fewer than half of patients with stage 4 non–small cell lung cancer have only one or two symptoms at diagnosis regardless of whether the patient was a smoker. In this study only 33% of patients reported having a cough and 25% had chest pain.

A study presented in October at the United European Gastroenterology Week found that of 600 pancreatic cancer cases, 46 of these were not detected by CT or MRI conducted 3-18 months prior to diagnosis. Of the 46 cases, 26% were not picked up by the radiologist and the rest were largely as a result of imaging changes over time. Radiology techniques are good, but they cannot pick up lesions that are too small. And some lesions, particularly in pancreatic cancer, can grow and metastasize rather quickly.

When a patient is diagnosed with advanced disease, it is most often simply because of the nature of the disease. But sometimes patients put off scheduling a doctor visit because of fear of the potential for bad news or fear of the doctor belittling their symptoms. Some tell me they were “just hoping the symptoms would disappear.” Waiting too long to see a doctor is never a good idea because timing is crucial. In many cases, there is a small window of opportunity to treat disease if remission is to be achieved.

Dr. Henry is a practicing clinical oncologist with PennMedicine in Philadelphia where he also serves as Vice Chair of the Department of Medicine at Pennsylvania Hospital.

This article was updated 12/7/22.

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