How Long Have I Got Left?

“How Long Have I Got Left?” By Mark Rosenman, The New York Times.

AS soon as the CT scan was done, I began reviewing the images. The diagnosis was immediate: Masses matting the lungs and deforming the spine. Cancer. In my neurosurgical training, I had reviewed hundreds of scans for fellow doctors to see if surgery offered any hope. I’d scribble in the chart “Widely metastatic disease — no role for surgery,” and move on. But this scan was different: It was my own. I have sat with countless patients and families to discuss grim prognoses: It’s one of the most important jobs physicians have.

I learned a few basic rules. Be honest about the prognosis but always leave some room for hope. Be vague but accurate. We never cite detailed statistics, and usually advise against Googling survival numbers, assuming the average patient doesn’t possess a nuanced understanding of statistics. People react differently to hearing “Procedure X has a 70 percent chance of survival” and “Procedure Y has a 30 percent chance of death.” Phrased that way, people flock to Procedure X, even though the numbers are the same.

One would think, then, that when my oncologist sat by my bedside to meet me, I would not immediately demand information on survival statistics. But now that I had traversed the line from doctor to patient, I had the same yearning for the numbers all patients ask for.

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