If you’ve ever heard a doctor deliver bad news, everything about that moment is probably seared into your brain with a permanence that rivals the moment you heard that Kennedy had been shot (if you’re that old) or the Towers had been hit (if you’re not.)
Is it because our doctors are the white-robed, high priests of medicine that their every word, frown, or raised eyebrow has the power to plunge us into the depths of despair? Is this why we scrutinize their phrases and mannerisms for clues about the future of our bodies?
Of course doctors — despite the mystique surrounding them — aren’t the high priests of medicine and they don’t have ultimate knowledge about our destinies. As one very wise doctor once told me, “a diagnosis — or a prognosis — for that matter, is just an opinion.” A well-informed opinion, to be sure, but not one that is carved in stone. If I had believed the neurologists who told me twelve years ago that I would probably never walk or fully use my left arm again, I’d be an invalid today. If my friend Janet had believed the oncologist who told her that she had one year to live, she would not now — ten years later — be writing her memoirs and enjoying her grandchildren.
The stories of triumph over diagnosis go on and on, and every time I hear or write about another one, I am awed anew at the power of the human spirit to overcome medical calamities that look hopeless. When I woke up from surgery with my half my body paralyzed by a stroke, what I thought was a calamity actually turned out to be a gift: It taught me something about myself and launched me on a new professional path. On this path, I have been privileged to meet and write the stories of courageous people who chose to disobey their diagnoses and to forge their own destinies of healing. Their very existence gives hope to all of us.
Of course we need our doctors. They are trained to make diagnoses. But they are not infallible. We should temper their opinions with what we know about ourselves. And they in turn need to recognize that their words are powerful influences on our bodies, minds and spirits, and they should be chosen wisely. We want our doctors to tell us the truth as they see it, but we also need them to be our partners in hope. Because, after all, neither they nor we really know what the future holds.
5 responses to “Triumph Over Diagnosis”
This is a really powerful piece of writing. It’s so important not to give a diagnosis the power to crush our will to get better.
Thank you Erica, both for the comment and for the inspiration of your own courage.
Yes, you are right. That’s why I don’t like telling very-ill patients that they only have this amount of time to live. I don’t like giving prognosis like that. Textbooks and journal studies will say that this kind of cancer or disease often have a poor prognosis with an approximate survival rate of so and so and I will tell patients that. But I’d also say that it’s not an absolute. I think it will be helpful to say that even though most patients do have that survival rate for that disease, it will not be the same for everyone. Actually, in the end, it all boils down to the patient’s choice. It is but the duty of the doctor to offer him/her all the options and give him/her the knowledge she needs to make an informed decision, not to tell that patient just how long he’s got to live.
Thank you for you wise comment, Prudence. Your patients are very fortunate. You are giving them autonomy, respect and dignity while accompanying them on their journeys, however difficult those journeys may be.
Years ago when my father was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer, the moment he heard the diagnosis, his face literally turned gray. For weeks, he seemed to lose the essence of who he was.
Since this was before the popularity of the Internet, I went to five different bookstores before I found the book that turned things around for dad. “Recalled by Life” is the story of how Dr. Anthony Sattilaro triumphed over prostate cancer.
My father extended his prognosis by a year, but more importantly he believed he could overcome his illness until the moment he died. Dr. Sattilaro extended his prognosis by ten years and brought hope to so many.