The movie Wit, starring Emma Thompson, is a scathing indictment of the dark side of academic medicine. A woman with advanced, metastatic ovarian cancer is offered a powerful experimental chemotherapy protocol that is accompanied by debilitating side effects. Her doctors, passionate about vanquishing the cancer cells, seem indifferent to the fragile emotional state of the person who is housing those cells. (“She’s tough— She can take the full dose of chemo.”) They focus intently in fluid input and output, size and spread of the cancer and the extent of the damage to her remaining healthy organs. They see her body as the battleground upon which will be decided their own medical defeat or victory. And, oh yes, also as the source of new knowledge in the fight against the enemy. The only compassion comes from her primary nurse, who sees beyond the ravaged body and offers healing to the soul within.
Academic medicine and biomedical research have made tremendous, lifesaving contributions to the diagnosis and treatment of disease. What this movie illustrates is, however, is the difference between “curing” and “healing.” There can be healing even without cure. We can become whole and at peace when faced with incurable chronic or terminal illness, and we should not be afraid to ask our doctors to accompany us on that journey.