Making sense of a diagnosis of incurable cancer: The importance of communication
Keywords:incurable cancer, patient coping, making-sense, uncertainty
Purpose: Patients diagnosed with incurable cancer may experience existential distress
and difficulty in re-appraising their lives because of uncertainty about the future.
Objectives: This study sought to understand how patients living with incurable cancer made sense of their diagnosis, how they prepared for the future and what support they wanted from their health professionals.
Subjects: 27 patients were recruited from the oncology and palliative care service at three metropolitan hospitals.
Methods: A qualitative research approach was used. Semi-structured face-to-face interviews were conducted. Interviews were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim. Data was analyzed using the constant-comparative method.
Results: Participants did not express a need to make sense of their diagnosis nor always ascribe to a particular religious belief; rather, many relied on a personal spirituality or philosophy to bring meaning to their experience. Importance was placed on their doctor keeping up with technology, being honest, and being confident and positive.
Conclusion: Participants in this study had incurable cancer but making sense of their current situation was not a conscious priority. For these patients, uncertainty was a positive, as certainty for them indicates death is approaching. What these interviews suggest, from the patient’s perspective, is that there is an implied contract between doctor and patient during this period which involves the doctor managing the flow of difficult information so that the patient can maintain normality for as long as possible. Understanding this helps to explain the difficulty of having advance care planning conversations within this setting, despite the many opportunities that a longer disease trajectory would seem to offer.
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