On Beating Cancer

Reacting to David Kuo’s brain tumors, Rod Dreher writes:

As with my late sister Ruthie, I know David is going to beat this cancer, even if it takes his life.

During the years I was a hospice volunteer counselor, I met a remarkable oncologist who offered a valuable perspective on his role as a physician:

Most oncologists say they treat cancer. I don’t treat cancer. I treat cancer patients. If you treat cancer, if you have to “beat cancer”, you will lose most of the time and start to feel angry and discouraged about your profession and maybe even angry at your patients for making you feel like a failure. But if you treat cancer patients, you realize that you are working fundamentally with a suffering human being, not a mass of malignant cells. And that means you can always be a good doctor, regardless of whether the patient lives or dies.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “On Beating Cancer”

  1. Another good oncologist, referring to the habits many doctors had of summarizing patient histories by saying, “Mr. Jones failed A and B and C,” said, “Patients don’t fail treatments; treatments fail patients.”

  2. Guérir parfois, soulager souvent, consoler toujours : a nice capsule of the duties of the physician attributed to Ambroise Paré, 16th-century surgeon to several kings of France.

  3. Amen.

    In my mother-in-law’s brief battle with lung cancer, it was clear to us that her FP and the oncologist she brought on the case both viewed the disease as the enemy. They kept pushing chemotherapy at her, chemotherapy she had made very clear she did not want.

    It wasn’t until we got a second oncology opinion who viewed my mother-in-law as a person instead of a disease that we found some peace. She told us that under the circumstances, refusing treatment was a rational decision — she was in no physical condition to withstand the treatment. We should make sure she is comfortable, and has whatever she wants.

    Which is what we did. Protecting her from the medical industrial complex wasn’t easy, and it exposed some real stupidity in what passes for a health care system in this country. But we were able to protect her.

    Thank god for physicians who can view their patients as people rather than diseases.

  4. Something I tell my medical students (pre-clinical years) that I heard from a physician colleague: Your patient didn’t get sick so you can show them how smart you are. Treat the person, not the disease.

  5. Just finished “The Emperor of All Maladies,” reading way too late into the night because I couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended.

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