Bioethics Blogs

The Wrong Way To React When Terminally Ill Patients Cry

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Just three weeks earlier, she had noticed something strange about one of her breasts. An irregular shape. Her daughter brought her to the doctor, and soon the patient, I’ll call her Amanda, was diagnosed with breast cancer, stage “to be determined.” In fact, she was now in an oncologist’s office, learning what tests she would receive to determine the extent of her tumor. And sitting between her and the doctor was a tape recorder, capturing their conversation.

A dozen minutes into the appointment, Amanda would break down crying. And the physician’s response, which I will lay out for you in a bit, is unfortunately not uncommon. When patients express negative emotion, many oncologists do not respond with empathy. As I’ll explain later, this is an enormous problem, but also one we can fix.

Amanda was 60 years old at the time of the appointment, quite frail for her age, requiring help climbing up onto the exam table because of a recent stroke. She needed to wear adult diapers. She also suffered from diabetes and tremors, although it was unclear whether those non-spontaneous movements were from Parkinson’s or some milder disorder. In other words, her health was already fragile and a breast cancer diagnosis wasn’t going to make things better.

Which may be why she was so distraught about her situation.

The oncologist described how he would evaluate her problem: “Now I am going to order a scan, a CT scan. It’s like an x-ray but she needs to lie down,” he explained to Amanda’s brother.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.