In February of 2011 my seventy-nine year old mother, with whom I was very close, was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. For almost a year she had been complaining to her doctor about severe indigestion, loss of appetite and a pain that started in her stomach and traveled to her back. In response to my mother’s complaints, her doctor had prescribed to her only antacids during her office visits which my mother kept diligently due to her discomfort. Eventually her doctor – after attributing many of my mother’s complaints to old age – recognized that the symptoms might reveal a more serious condition. Regrettably it did. Her doctor referred (she had an HMO) my mother to a doctor who did conducted an endoscopic exam to determine the source of my mother’s discomfort. The cancer that was discovered was mature by then and was also aggressively spreading from her liver to her lymph nodes. I talked to the diagnosing physician who was not particularly optimistic but would not say how long this still vibrant and sharp-witted woman had left to live. (Mom was a very skillful Sudoku player.) After talking to the doctor I then tried to console her as she learned this about this virtual death sentence. She was still drowsy due to the medication that was used to put her under during her exam.
I knew that my job then was to care for my mother and to comfort her to the extent that I could. I first learned as much about the disease as I could. (A different form of the cancer would yet take the life of Steve Jobs.) I learned the many possible side effects of the treatment that was recommended for her – chemotherapy. Mom and I visited the first of several oncologists she would see. This was a man who had absolutely no bedside manner. He painted a very grisly – and accurate – forecast of what she could expect – the pain, fatigue, etc. Her second oncologist was not as brutally candid – quite the opposite in fact. He never mentioned the word death. Instead he recommended for her chemo and a very expensive drug called Tarceva (Erlotinib hydrochloride). He touted the drug as a miraculous smart-drug that would do wonders for her while never saying it would save her life – fair enough.
My pain and my mother’s pain came about when he and others did not tell her about what symptoms might likely develop due to the chemo. For example, when we gave our reservations about chemotherapy, this doctor and his nurses basically told us that nausea, hair loss etc., where virtually unheard of due to new miracle drugs. Mother experienced all these symptoms in spades. When mother began to have inexplicable tremors, her new doctor acted like he had no clue as to what was at the root of this condition. I, on the other hand, did a simple search about the disease to see that tremors were not uncommon. Nor were blood clots although she was not told those were like to develop as well. So why did the doctor choose to keep Mom in the dark as to the effects of her chemo and her medications? Was it done to not scare her?
No. I believe this: patients with terminal diseases are kept in the dark and given false hope in order to keep them reliant on the medical orthodoxy concerning the treatment of their diseases. This is done to keep these unfortunate souls reliant on a cocktail of extremely expensive drugs. They know that while people eagerly might try alternative medicine for minor illnesses, they rarely take such risks when their lives are at stake. In this is the opportunity for the medical/pharmaceutical industry to rake in billions. I learned that some people choose to not have chemo at all because of the decrease in the quality of life that they anticipate. I learned that many others try use alternative medicines. I am not recommending either. What I am suggesting is that to fill people with false hope simply to support this profit machine is cruel.
Mother died six month later while she was in home hospice. She was a hardly recognizable, shell of herself. She had wondered, in one of our last conversations, if her doctors had used her fear of death to continue to push these medications. I have no doubt that they did.
Right before mom died – miserable and scared – I talked to the first oncologist we saw. He was a man whose candor I would first hate and later come to respect. He said that the miracle drug that the second oncologist touted was not even recommended for the patients of the doctor who had written the groundbreaking article on Tarceva. He also told me that his mother had breast cancer and had decided to forgo getting chemo at all. I just wish that the medical – and particularly the pharmaceutical – industry would see these people as more than sources of profit or as pillars to hold up their highly lucrative business. Peddling false hope is the sleaziest trade of them all.