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Should Doctors Lie to Their Patients About Their Survival Chances?

As La Rochefoucauld said back in the seventeenth century, one can stare neither at the sun nor at death for very long.

by
Theodore Dalrymple

Bio

November 12, 2012 - 7:00 am
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It could, of course; on the other hand, it might make tolerable what would otherwise be intolerable. Is false hope never better than, or to be preferred to, no hope at all?

Doctor Johnson, who was so wise on so many subjects, was firmly, one might say dogmatically, of the opinion that falsehood in the medical context was always wrong. “I deny the lawfulness” he said, “of telling a lie to a sick man for fear of alarming him. You have no business with the consequences; you are to tell the truth.” This is a little too categorical for my taste. My mother’s surgeon did not think my mother could bear the knowledge that she had an 80 percent chance of fatal recurrence of her cancer within a year, and she lived another nineteen years in ignorance of the fact (to say that it was blissful ignorance would be to put it too strongly).

Research cited by the authors of the paper suggests why patients may not hear, mark and inwardly digest what their oncologists say to them. On the whole oncologists do tell their mortally ill patients that they are dying; but, for very understandable reasons, they find the whole subject rather distasteful or embarrassing and move on to something else, namely what to do about it. This is altogether easier for them, and also for the patient; as La Rochefoucauld said back in the seventeenth century, one can stare neither at the sun nor at death for very long. In the modern world particularly, activity, even if it be futile, is preferable to resignation or fatalism. For us, there is no such thing as a good death, even though we shall all one day die.

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Image courtesy shutterstock / KimsCreativeHub

More on medicine from Theodore Dalrymple at PJ Lifestyle:

How Doctors Turn Their Patients into Drug Addicts

Should We Be Worried About Parasites from Cats?

Redirecting Human Organs to the Third World

Do Today’s Medical Ethics Prevent New Breakthroughs?

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Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His new book is Second Opinion: A Doctor's Notes from the Inner City.
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