Thursday, November 2, 2006

False Hope

There’s no such thing as “false hope”. This term is grammatically incorrect AND it makes no sense. How can hope be false? If you talk about false love, you mean that the person was pretending to love but the love wasn’t real. Likewise, if you talk about false hope, grammatically, that means you’re pretending to hope but the hope isn’t real. Now that doesn’t make any sense. Hope is a “feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen”. That feeling itself is not contingent on whether or not that thing happens. I can hope for world peace. Whether or not there will ever be peace in the world has no bearing on the quality or nature of my hope.

Giving a cancer patient hope that he will be cured no matter what the statistics say is not giving false hope. There can ALWAYS be hope. In this case, the ends DON’T justify the means. Hope is a means of survival, whether you’re a cancer patient, a child growing up in a war zone, or a U.N. negotiator. The patient may die, the child may be killed, and the negotiator may never see world peace. Was there hope? Yes. Was the hope false? Not real? Absolutely not. The hope was very real and very necessary to keep those people going for as long as they did. Without hope, we should all just lie down and wait to die. Peace negotiators should just collectively quit their jobs.

I have to go on about this because I’ve been surprised that even some of the compassionate, patient-advocate doctors I’ve spoken to say they think doctors should not give patients false hope and that doctors should tell patients if their cancer is “incurable”. Honestly, this kind of thinking makes me want to weep.

Think of all the diseases that were once “incurable”. Even some cancers that were considered terminal just five years ago are now treatable, with patients living way beyond the 6 or so months they were once given. Cancer survival rates only tell you what percentage of people with your cancer BEFORE you have survived. I could look at the survival rates for chicken pox in the distant past and think I might die of chicken pox. That would be silly. So how do we know that a cure for any particular disease won’t be found in the next ten years? Or five years? Or even NEXT year? What if I have enough hope to keep me alive for ONE more year until that cure is found? And after that year is up and there’s still no cure, how about enough hope for just ONE MORE year? And after that, just ONE MORE?

Of course, there’s the practical side. One doctor told me he tells his patients their cancer is incurable so that they can get their affairs in order and prepare their families. I’m not denying that’s a good idea. I made out a Living Will before I went in for my surgery. I even thought about making videos of me talking to my kids so that they could see and hear me after I’m gone (I haven’t gotten my act together to actually do that yet, but I will someday...). But do doctors have to say “incurable”? Do they have any idea what that single word does to a patient who’s just been diagnosed with cancer? How about, “The statistics for patients with your cancer show that only a small percentage survive past the first year. There’s no reason why you can’t be in that small percentage. And advancements in cancer research are so fast these days, there’s no guarantee that there WON’T be a cure in the next few years!” There is absolutely nothing false in that.

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