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Why an Oncologist Needs to be Totally Honest with "Terminal" Cancer Patients

Updated on November 18, 2015

The truth may be the best medicine

One of my relatives recently died from a very aggressive cancer that usually carries a poor prognosis.

I'm not sure she understood just how sick she was until close to the end.

First she was diagnosed. Then she had surgery to remove a tumor in her lung. Then she was given what sounded like good news - "It's only Stage II, so we can treat it."

She and her extended family were greatly relieved because they now expected the best. They trusted their doctors and they assumed all would be well, as long as she did the prescribed courses of treatment. In the United States, this is generally surgery, followed by radiation and possibly chemotherapy.

In short, this woman's physician's either weren't telling the complete truth or she didn't understand exactly what they were telling her. Since she was an intelligent woman, I'll wager the doctors weren't being entirely straight.

Apparently, she's the only cancer patient who's either in denial or being misled.

A 2012 study that appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine underscored the apparent communication breakdown between doctor and cancer patient.

This report found that most patients with a poor prognosis don't really believe it, and also don't think they're going to die from their disease.

The NEJM findings showed that either 81 percent of people with metastatic colon cancer believe that chemotherapy will cure them. And 69 percent of lung cancer patients believe the same.

The authors of the study pointed out that these patients didn't realize the treatments they received were "palliative" rather than curative. In other words, they expect the therapy will give them a fighting chance of long-term survival.


A Biography of Dr. Emanuel Revici

Palliation versus cure

Apparently, my cousin's doctor's were thinking in terms of palliation rather than cure when they assured her the lung tumor was "treatable." Yes, they could offer her various treatments, some of which would make her vomit and lose her hair. But they couldn't offer her a cure, at least by conventional medical standards.

So were they lying? Yes and no. But they weren't being entirely honest.

To be fair, doctors are afraid of what will happen to someone if they are given a very poor prognosis and no treatment options. Having no hope often, in and of itself, often sends patients into a precipitous decline. This is a dilemma, especially in the United States, because the only legal treatments for cancer are surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. An oncologist may know these won't help a particular patient, but this is all he or she can suggest without risking his or her medical license.

Even if a physician knows of a good alternative cancer treatment, they aren't legally able to recommend it.

This legal restriction proved devastating in my cousin's case. Although she had the financial means to pay out of pocked for alternative medicine, or even to travel to a cancer clinic in Mexico or in Germany, two countries that permit treatments such as Sono-Photodynamic therapy and hyperthermia, she didn't even consider those options, both of which have long track records of success.

That's because she trusted her oncologists, and everything they told her.

Many cancer patients seek treatment in Tijuana


Cancer Step Outside the Box

What happens when patients don't hear the truth

If patients really knew what the true success rates were for their particular type of cancer, perhaps many of them would embark upon a different approach before it's too late.

One cancer clinic in the Tijuana, Mexico area, where dozens of alternative cancer care centers exist, claims a 25 percent long-term survival rate for people who've basically been sent home to die.

Once it became clear my cousin's conventional medical treatments weren't working, and actually seemed to worsen her condition, her doctors suddenly switched gears and recommended hospice.

When a patient "goes on hospice," this is usually a point of no return. Hospice care typically involves liberal use of sedatives and pain killers. These drugs often cause excess sleepiness.

If an already weakened cancer patient begins to sleep most of the time, he or she won't be eating or drinking very much, which hastens death. So it's very easy for a patient to go from functioning fairly well to nearly comatose in a matter of days.

In my cousin's case, her cancer spread much faster than she was led to believe it would. Her pain level increased proportionately, requiring the use of heavy-duty painkillers. This set off an irreversible downward spiral that resulted in the death of a woman who, just a few months before, epitomized the saying, "Live life to the fullest."

Unfortunately, my cousin's death from lung cancer came very quickly, as this is often a very lethal and quick-killing cancer. By the time she realized conventional treatments weren't going to help her, it was too late to try anything else.

Natural Cancer Cures With a Good Track Record

Why everyone deserves to know the truth

If my cousin had known her future on earth was measured in weeks, not years, and that standard medical treatments would prove futile, this smart and strong-willed woman would have sought out alternatives. And she would have found them.

Whether these treatments would have extended her life is something we'll never know. But at least she could have tried them. I'm sure she would have tried as many of them as she could.

However, because she placed her hopes in a medical system that offers a near-zero chance of long-term survival for her particular cancer, at the stage it was diagnosed, she didn't explore anything else.

This is precisely why doctors need to level with their patients, instead of encouraging them to try treatments that may shrink their tumors a bit, but may not help them live longer.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These products are not meant to diagnose‚ treat or cure any disease or medical condition.

This is an informational article and not intended as medical advice or advocacy of certain treatment options. People with health concerns should discuss them with a trusted medical professional. I am not a medical professional and cannot give medical advice.


I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

Do you believe oncologists should be totally honest with their patients?

Submit a Comment
  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Hi Bell,

    Thank you for visiting and for commenting. I do think the doctors may want to soften the blow and give people "hope" by offering them chemo. But even if this treatment does prolong their life, and that's a big if, it may only be for a very short time. Yes, they are taking people choices away, because it may then be too late to try alternative medicine, or the patient may be so sick they don't even want to try.

  • bell du jour profile image

    bell du jour 

    6 years ago from Ireland

    Hi ologsinquito, I agree that all cancer patients should be told the absolute truth, otherwise how can they decide whether they want treatment or not? I think the reason the medical profession try to soften the blow is to encourage all patients to have some treatment, if someone is told that is will only prolong their life and not cure them they may decide to not have any treatment at all. The thing is that it is their right to decide - and by not giving them all the information the doctors are effectively taking away their right to choose. Very good hub - voted up and interesting.


  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Hi Joe,

    I am very sorry as well my relatives, and so many other people, have had to live and die under these circumstances. It is criminal that people are discouraged from trying treatments that can possibly help them, especially when conventional treatments clearly aren't working.

  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Hi Carola,

    I'm happy you're doing so well and that you suffered no adverse effects from the treatments. At least your doctors recommended vitamins.

    Thanks again for visiting.

  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Hi Carola,

    It sounds like health care in Canada is much farther along than in the United States. Could it have something to do with the fact that there is maybe less profiteering up there, since you have a different health system? I've never heard of cancer patients in the United States being given vitamins. One person I know going through chemo was told, in no uncertain terms, to avoid all vitamins and supplements because it would interfere with the chemo.

    Canada is also the land of Rene Caisse and Gaston Naessens, both of whom had much success treating cancer with a different approach.

    Thank you for visiting and for commenting.

  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Hi bac2basics,

    I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. Lung cancer is terrible. I've now lost three relatives to this disease. When my grandfather was dying of lung cancer, the doctors were talking like the radiation could cure him.

    Although I don't know much about medical care in Spain, it sounds as if your husband had the best standard medical care has to offer and it was probably better than what he would have received in the United States.

    Patients need to know the truth, so they have the option of declining treatment, or looking for an alternative.

    Thank you for reading and for your input.

  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Hi Marcy,

    Thank you for the nice words. It is very important that patients have exactly the same information as their doctors, because their lives are on the line. Someone with a fast-moving cancer cannot afford to do treatments that aren't going to help. With any luck, and the appropriate treatments, their last months can be many years from now.

  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Eric, that is so kind. Thank you.

  • ologsinquito profile imageAUTHOR


    6 years ago from USA

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for weighing in. I appreciate your comments.

    Oncologists, in general, do not steer patients in the direction of alternative medicine. A lot of them view these different approaches with a fair amount of hostility. On one forum I read of an oncologist telling a woman, off the record, to try Essiac tea. I have no way of verifying whether or not this information is true.

    Oncologists can certainly discuss alternatives, but they don't often do so in a positive manner, from what I'm hearing. But they can't recommend an alternative approach over chemotherapy or they'd be setting themselves up for trouble.

    It must be a very tough field to work in.

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    6 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    I think your "medical advice" was spot on. If a poor patient is only getting advice and information from their doctor, they need to go elsewhere. Having good bedside manor and being a great oncologist are not mutually exclusive but pretty darn close. Can you even imagine a doctor spending that much time on that very complicated specialty being much of a people person -- I do not think so.

    I do question your "legal opinion". A Doctor discussing alternative treatments is not breaking any ethical, medical or legislative laws. Someone is outright lying about that. Can they prescribe banned or unaproved treatments? No. Can they, inform about them and discuss them and lead to more education about them, certainly.

    My doctors were different than your cousins. It was more like "Eric you are going to die soon, however we can give this hail Mary a try to you will be miserably suffering for 6 months or so before you die". What the doctors did not know is that I do not do suffering, and I do not do dying.

    Keep on this friend, you are doing great work


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