One Patient Changed This Oncologist’s View of Hope. Here’s How.

June 12, 2024 9:00 am

The following article is provided by The Clearity Foundation to support women with ovarian cancer and their families. Learn more about The Clearity Foundation and the services we provide directly to women as they make treatment decisions and navigate emotional impacts of their diagnosis.

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By Sharon Worcester, MA

CHICAGO — Carlos, a 21-year-old, lay in a hospital bed, barely clinging to life. Following a stem cell transplant for leukemia, Carlos had developed a life-threatening case of graft-vs-host disease.

But Carlos’ mother had faith.

“I have hope things will get better,” she said, via interpreter, to Richard Leiter, MD, a palliative care doctor in training at that time.

“I hope they will,” Leiter told her.

“I should have stopped there,” said Leiter, recounting an early-career lesson on hope during the ASCO Voices session at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) 2024 annual meeting. “But in my eagerness to show my attending and myself that I could handle this conversation, I kept going, mistakenly.”

“But none of us think they will,” Leiter continued.

Carlos’ mother looked Leiter in the eye. “You want him to die,” she said.

“I knew, even then, that she was right,” recalled Leiter, now a palliative care physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston.

Although there was nothing he could do to save Carlos, Leiter also couldn’t sit with the extreme suffering. “The pain was too great,” Leiter said. “I needed her to adopt our narrative that we had done everything we could to help him live, and now, we would do everything we could to help his death be a comfortable one.”

But looking back, Leiter realized, “How could we have asked her to accept what was fundamentally unacceptable, to comprehend the incomprehensible?”

The Importance of Hope

Hope is not only a feature of human cognition but also a measurable and malleable construct that can affect life outcomes, Alan B. Astrow, MD, said during an ASCO symposium on “The Art and Science of Hope.”

“How we think about hope directly influences patient care,” said Astrow, chief of hematology and medical oncology at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital and a professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

Hope, whatever it turns out to be neurobiologically, is “very much a gift” that underlies human existence, he said.

Physicians have the capacity to restore or shatter a patient’s hopes, and those who come to understand the importance of hope will wish to extend the gift to others, Astrow said.

Asking patients about their hopes is the “golden question,” Steven Z. Pantilat, MD, said at the symposium. “When you think about the future, what do you hope for?”

Often, the answers reveal not only “things beyond a cure that matter tremendously to the patient but things that we can help with,” said Pantilat, professor and chief of the Division of Palliative Medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

Pantilat recalled a patient with advanced pancreatic cancer who wished to see her daughter’s wedding in 10 months. He knew that was unlikely, but the discussion led to another solution.

Her daughter moved the wedding to the ICU.

Hope can persist and uplift even in the darkest of times, and “as clinicians, we need to be in the true hope business,” he said.

While some patients may wish for a cure, others may want more time with family or comfort in the face of suffering. People can “hope for all the things that can still be, despite the fact that there’s a lot of things that can’t,” he said.

However, fear that a patient will hope for a cure, and that the difficult discussions to follow might destroy hope or lead to false hope, sometimes means physicians won’t begin the conversation.

“We want to be honest with our patients — compassionate and kind, but honest — when we talk about their hopes,” Pantilat explained. Sometimes that means he needs to tell patients, “I wish that could happen. I wish I had a treatment that could make your cancer go away, but unfortunately, I don’t. So let’s think about what else we can do to help you.”

Having these difficult discussions matters. The evidence, although limited, indicates that feeling hopeful can improve patients’ well-being and may even boost their cancer outcomes.

One recent study found, for instance, that patients who reported feeling more hopeful also had lower levels of depression and anxiety. Early research also suggests that greater levels of hope may have a hand in reducing inflammation in patients with ovarian cancer and could even improve survival in some patients with advanced cancer.

For Leiter, while these lessons came early in his career as a palliative care physician, they persist and influence his practice today.

“I know that I could not have prevented Carlos’ death. None of us could have, and none of us could have protected his mother from the unimaginable grief that will stay with her for the rest of her life,” he said. “But I could have made things just a little bit less difficult for her.”

“I could have acted as her guide rather than her cross-examiner,” he continued, explaining that he now sees hope as “a generous collaborator” that can coexist with rising creatinine levels, failing livers, and fears about intubation.

“As clinicians, we can always find space to hope with our patients and their families,” he said. “So now, years later when I sit with a terrified and grieving family and they tell me they hope their loved one gets better, I remember Carlos’ mother’s eyes piercing mine…and I know how to respond: ‘I hope so, too.’ And I do.”

This article was published by: Medscape

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