I’ve chosen to quote quite extensively from the piece (HT: Ed Yong), because I know a lot of you would miss out on all of it if I just posted a link and a short quote. It’s a very good piece, you should read all of it – and yes, there’s a lot more at the link – if you have any interest in this subject:
“The issue has become pressing, in recent years, for reasons of expense. The soaring cost of health care is the greatest threat to the country’s long-term solvency, and the terminally ill account for a lot of it. Twenty-five per cent of all Medicare spending is for the five per cent of patients who are in their final year of life, and most of that money goes for care in their last couple of months which is of little apparent benefit.
Spending on a disease like cancer tends to follow a particular pattern. There are high initial costs as the cancer is treated, and then, if all goes well, these costs taper off. Medical spending for a breast-cancer survivor, for instance, averaged an estimated fifty-four thousand dollars in 2003, the vast majority of it for the initial diagnostic testing, surgery, and, where necessary, radiation and chemotherapy. For a patient with a fatal version of the disease, though, the cost curve is U-shaped, rising again toward the end—to an average of sixty-three thousand dollars during the last six months of life with an incurable breast cancer. Our medical system is excellent at trying to stave off death with eight-thousand-dollar-a-month chemotherapy, three-thousand-dollar-a-day intensive care, five-thousand-dollar-an-hour surgery. But, ultimately, death comes, and no one is good at knowing when to stop.
For all but our most recent history, dying was typically a brief process. Whether the cause was childhood infection, difficult childbirth, heart attack, or pneumonia, the interval between recognizing that you had a life-threatening ailment and death was often just a matter of days or weeks. […] These days, swift catastrophic illness is the exception; for most people, death comes only after long medical struggle with an incurable condition—advanced cancer, progressive organ failure (usually the heart, kidney, or liver), or the multiple debilities of very old age. In all such cases, death is certain, but the timing isn’t. So everyone struggles with this uncertainty—with how, and when, to accept that the battle is lost. As for last words, they hardly seem to exist anymore. Technology sustains our organs until we are well past the point of awareness and coherence. Besides, how do you attend to the thoughts and concerns of the dying when medicine has made it almost impossible to be sure who the dying even are? Is someone with terminal cancer, dementia, incurable congestive heart failure dying, exactly?
I once cared for a woman in her sixties who had severe chest and abdominal pain from a bowel obstruction that had ruptured her colon, caused her to have a heart attack, and put her into septic shock and renal failure. I performed an emergency operation to remove the damaged length of colon and give her a colostomy. A cardiologist stented her coronary arteries. We put her on dialysis, a ventilator, and intravenous feeding, and stabilized her. After a couple of weeks, though, it was clear that she was not going to get much better. The septic shock had left her with heart and respiratory failure as well as dry gangrene of her foot, which would have to be amputated. She had a large, open abdominal wound with leaking bowel contents, which would require twice-a-day cleaning and dressing for weeks in order to heal. She would not be able to eat. She would need a tracheotomy. Her kidneys were gone, and she would have to spend three days a week on a dialysis machine for the rest of her life.
She was unmarried and without children. So I sat with her sisters in the I.C.U. family room to talk about whether we should proceed with the amputation and the tracheotomy. “Is she dying?” one of the sisters asked me. I didn’t know how to answer the question. I wasn’t even sure what the word “dying” meant anymore. In the past few decades, medical science has rendered obsolete centuries of experience, tradition, and language about our mortality, and created a new difficulty for mankind: how to die.
I asked Marcoux what he hopes to accomplish for terminal lung-cancer patients when they first come to see him. “I’m thinking, Can I get them a pretty good year or two out of this?” he said. “Those are my expectations. For me, the long tail for a patient like her is three to four years.” But this is not what people want to hear. “They’re thinking ten to twenty years. You hear that time and time again. And I’d be the same way if I were in their shoes.”
You’d think doctors would be well equipped to navigate the shoals here, but at least two things get in the way. First, our own views may be unrealistic. A study led by the Harvard researcher Nicholas Christakis asked the doctors of almost five hundred terminally ill patients to estimate how long they thought their patient would survive, and then followed the patients. Sixty-three per cent of doctors overestimated survival time. Just seventeen per cent underestimated it. The average estimate was five hundred and thirty per cent too high. And, the better the doctors knew their patients, the more likely they were to err.
Second, we often avoid voicing even these sentiments. Studies find that although doctors usually tell patients when a cancer is not curable, most are reluctant to give a specific prognosis, even when pressed. More than forty per cent of oncologists report offering treatments that they believe are unlikely to work. In an era in which the relationship between patient and doctor is increasingly miscast in retail terms—“the customer is always right”—doctors are especially hesitant to trample on a patient’s expectations. You worry far more about being overly pessimistic than you do about being overly optimistic. And talking about dying is enormously fraught. When you have a patient like Sara Monopoli, the last thing you want to do is grapple with the truth. I know, because Marcoux wasn’t the only one avoiding that conversation with her. I was, too.
In 1985, the paleontologist and writer Stephen Jay Gould published an extraordinary essay entitled “The Median Isn’t the Message,” after he had been given a diagnosis, three years earlier, of abdominal mesothelioma, a rare and lethal cancer usually associated with asbestos exposure. He went to a medical library when he got the diagnosis and pulled out the latest scientific articles on the disease. “The literature couldn’t have been more brutally clear: mesothelioma is incurable, with a median survival of only eight months after discovery,” he wrote. The news was devastating. But then he began looking at the graphs of the patient-survival curves.
Gould was a naturalist, and more inclined to notice the variation around the curve’s middle point than the middle point itself. What the naturalist saw was remarkable variation. The patients were not clustered around the median survival but, instead, fanned out in both directions. Moreover, the curve was skewed to the right, with a long tail, however slender, of patients who lived many years longer than the eight-month median. This is where he found solace. He could imagine himself surviving far out in that long tail. And he did. Following surgery and experimental chemotherapy, he lived twenty more years before dying, in 2002, at the age of sixty, from a lung cancer that was unrelated to his original disease.
“It has become, in my view, a bit too trendy to regard the acceptance of death as something tantamount to intrinsic dignity,” he wrote in his 1985 essay. “Of course I agree with the preacher of Ecclesiastes that there is a time to love and a time to die—and when my skein runs out I hope to face the end calmly and in my own way. For most situations, however, I prefer the more martial view that death is the ultimate enemy—and I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light.”
I think of Gould and his essay every time I have a patient with a terminal illness. There is almost always a long tail of possibility, however thin. What’s wrong with looking for it? Nothing, it seems to me, unless it means we have failed to prepare for the outcome that’s vastly more probable. The trouble is that we’ve built our medical system and culture around the long tail. We’ve created a multitrillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets—and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near-certainty that those tickets will not win. Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan.”