• Vol. 40 No. 1, 50–55
  • 15 January 2011

Providing Hope in Terminal Cancer: When is it Appropriate and When is it Not?

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ABSTRACT

Hope is essential in the face of terminal cancer. Generally in Western societies, patients and their families prefer their doctor to engage them in transparent, realistic, authoritative, empathic and open communication about the diagnosis and prognosis of cancer but this topic is not well studied in the Asian context. With the exponential increase in information about cancer and the many permutations in cancer treatment, rational and otherwise, the doctor-patient relationship is even more critical in planning the best treatment strategy and also in rendering both particular and general hope in the patient’s war against cancer. Overall, the majority of drugs tested against cancer have failed to reach the market, and those that have, only provide modest benefits, several major therapeutic breakthroughs notwithstanding. Commoditised medicalisation of the dying process ingrained into the contemporary consciousness can potentially create unrealistic or false hope, therapeutic nihilism and a drain on the resources of both the patient and society. These factors can also detract from the dignity of dying as an acceptable natural process. Hope cannot be confined only to focusing merely on the existential dimension of improving survival through technological intervention. Psychosocial and, where appropriate, spiritual interventions and support also play major roles in relieving suffering and providing hope to the patient. Hope cannot be a victim of misinformation from self-interested external parties, nor be an obsession with just buying promises of extending survival time without sufficient regard for quality of life and achieving a good death.


Hope is essential in the face of terminal cancer. Generally in Western societies, patients and their families prefer their doctor to engage them in transparent, realistic, authoritative, empathic and open communication about the diagnosis and prognosis of cancer but this topic is not well studied in the Asian context. With the exponential increase in information about cancer and the many permutations in cancer treatment, rational and otherwise, the doctor-patient relationship is even more critical in planning the best treatment strategy and also in rendering both particular and general hope in the patient’s war against cancer. Overall, the majority of drugs tested against cancer have failed to reach the market, and those that have, only provide modest benefits, several major therapeutic breakthroughs notwithstanding. Commoditised medicalisation of the dying process ingrained into the contemporary consciousness can potentially create unrealistic or false hope, therapeutic nihilism and a drain on the resources of both the patient and society. These factors can also detract from the dignity of dying as an acceptable natural process. Hope cannot be confined only to focusing merely on the existential dimension of improving survival through technological intervention. Psychosocial and, where appropriate, spiritual interventions and support also play major roles in relieving suffering and providing hope to the patient. Hope cannot be a victim of misinformation from self-interested external parties, nor be an obsession with just buying promises of extending survival time without sufficient regard for quality of life and achieving a good death.

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