Some patients approaching the end of life are in denial, assuming that they’ll live much longer than is realistic. Yet doctors often have a far more pessimistic estimate of their life expectancy, said Dr. Robert Gramling, the Holly & Bob Miller chair in palliative medicine at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. In a study published last year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, only 5 percent of cancer patients with less than six months to live had an accurate understanding of their illness. Thirty-eight percent couldn’t remember ever talking to their doctor about their life expectancy.
And in a 2012 study in The New England Journal of Medicine, 69 percent of patients with metastatic lung cancer and 81 percent of people with advanced colorectal cancer thought they could still be cured, although both conditions are generally considered fatal, said study co-author Dr. Nancy Keating, a professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Such misunderstandings can have profound consequences for patients and their caregivers. Patients who don’t understand how long they have to live often choose overly aggressive therapy that can cause pointless pain and suffering. Nearly one-third of cancer patients end up in the intensive care unit, or ICU, in the last month of life, according to the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care. Although intensive care can save the lives of younger, healthier people, it doesn’t improve or lengthen the lives of people with terminal cancer.
“It’s surprising how many people end up in an ICU, critically ill and dying, without realizing they’re dying,” said Dr. Mark Siegel, a professor of internal medicine and critical care specialist at the Yale School of Medicine. These last-ditch measures to extend life can leave families with extended grief and trauma, Siegel said.
Although almost half of Americans use hospice care — which focuses on comfort care at the end of life — studies show that many people enter hospice very late in their illness, often only a week before death. “The real question is, ‘How do these patients become overly optimistic about their prognosis and what part do physicians play in this?’” Siegel said. “What do physicians tell the patients? What are patients hearing?”"
“How long have I got, Doc?” Why many cancer patients don’t have answers - Salon.com