Last week my friend Gail told me she was put into an extremely difficult situation. Her mother’s oncologist called Gail to inform her of her mother’s terminal cancer and asked Gail to break the fateful news to her mother. By way of background Gail and her mother live in different cities. And Gail’s mother had an appointment with the oncologist two days later.
What should one do in a situation like that? How ethical is it when your mother’s doctor relies on you to inform your parent that she has an untreatable cancer?
Isn’t it the doctor’s responsibility to do that? How should one frame a message that is so heart-wrenching as informing your parent that her days are literally numbered. Once you’ve taken that step and bravely, and perhaps tearfully, broken the fateful news, how do you respond to such questions as: How serious is the cancer? How long do I have to live? Are there treatments that will possibly cure, or if not cure, delay the inevitable? And worst of all, what should Gail’s reply be if her mother asks: “What do you think I should do?”
Well, Gail broke the news to her mother. It couldn’t have been easy telling your parent that she is going to die…soon. Gail also promised to come home to accompany her Mom to her appointment.
Gail’s mother received the news with equanimity. Knowing that Gail’s knowledge was limited and that she had an appointment with the oncologist two days later, her mother had only one request of Gail: that she be strong because she would need her daughter’s fortitude and love more than ever in the months to come.
Gloria Keeney says
Thank you first of all for this post of a real life and recent situation. I’m not shocked but certainly saddened to hear how the oncologist handled this. I would suggest a good read of Dr. Ira Byock’s newest book “The Best Care Possible.” It’s clear physicians everywhere struggle with how to give a diagnosis of limited life. We deserve to have doctors who are trained in not only how to give bad news but more importantly how to take time and listen. “The Best Care Possible” is a very good book to help learn how to provide that care and method of listening.
Lynn Rosen says
My story is close but substantially different. Because I also live far from my father, I’d been in contact with his physicians during early testing phase. I’d explained that I didn’t want him to be alone when receiving the diagnosis. A nurse had apparently mentioned to my dad that my phone number was in his file, Dad requested that if his physician did phone me, and did provide a diagnosis, that I pass the information along to him prior to the already-scheduled physician appointment. My own struggle was whether to be honest, to tell my father what I knew he would hear the following morning. But the decision was ultimately an easy one: I answered him honestly because I need him to know that he can trust me as we move through this process together. Tomorrow we’ll both be at the oncologist’s for a first appointment. We’ll receive specifics about staging, treatment options, etc. And because my father and I have already begun our own conversations none of this feels “tough”. Not easy, talking together about a certainty. But not tough. I know from his physicians that they value my presence here, value my place in this picture of caring for and about my father. I am their ally. And I am my father’s own mama-bear advocate!