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Staring Into The Abyss

I was surprised at the referral in the first place, but baffled after seeing the patient in the flesh. It was someone else’s clinic, and the note read that this 94 year-old man on androgen deprivation for asymptomatic low volume metastatic prostate cancer for many years had a climbing PSA. About 8. Please discuss combined androgen blockade with him. I began the talk about how combined blockade has a pretty weak benefit at the best of times, and that in a 94 year-old it almost certainly would not make him live any longer. He was asymptomatic, so he would not feel any better, and he may have a worsening of his side effects. I wrapped it up by telling him he was old enough to make his own decisions about his treatment, and if he didn’t want another pill to take, he could certainly say no. He said yes. I clarified the points about limited or no benefit, and possible exacerbation of side effects. He said if it would give him a few more years, he’d take it. I told him it wouldn’t. He wanted it anyway. I could not promise the treatment would not make him live any longer, and that was good enough for him. At the end of the consultation he was well counseled, and had made his decision. You might think of an 80 year-old you have seen who seemed more like a 60-year old, and think I was being unfair to the man, but I can confirm he was a 94 year-old who seemed very much to be 94.

I tend to assume that when people get to a certain age, they have come to terms with a few things, including death. This is not always the case, and I think running from death is becoming more popular. While research confirms that doctors have few illusions about treatment leading up to their own demise, and plan to refuse much of it, laypeople are hungry for all the invasive treatment they can get. As doctors, we don’t always help with this. We have pills and procedures that make statistically significant improvements in cancer specific survival, and what cancer sufferer would say no to that? We spend a lot more time studying how to hold failing anatomy together than we do learning to let entropy take its course. We have treatments that hint at immortality, nobody needs to die of Condition X anymore, now that we have Drug Y. What if this patient in front of us is the one in a hundred that has a durable remission? What if we kill them through inaction? What about the guilt-ridden estranged son who wants “Everything Done”?

Popular media have kept up a sustained and determined campaign for cardiovascular resuscitation in particular. Having an intelligent, sensitive, pragmatic talk to a family about not resuscitating the palliative patient due to the invasive, undignified nature of resuscitation for a virtually negligible chance of durable success is not as convincing as James Bond being defibrillated in his Aston Martin.


What is the definition of “good survivor” if not continuing to drink, gamble, and assassinate day zero post-resuscitation? Sadly, days or weeks of vegetative decline is much more common.

So what of the 94 year-old, who has already outlasted his cohort’s life expectancy by over 20 years? Who lived through two world wars, the rise and fall of the Soviet Communist state, the invention of Rock ‘n’ Roll, space flight, and electric foot spas? Objectively, he made an informed decision about his health care, prioritizing his values and concluding that the chance of increased quantity, however tiny, trumped quality. I can’t help think that in reality he kidded himself that he was beating death once again. He had evaded those cruel icy fingers, and secretly maybe thought he could live to a hundred and fifty. If he was my Grandpa, maybe I could have talked to him about embracing the end as a part of the natural cycle; not fearing, but accepting. But then, I was just his doctor.

Jim Duthie is a Urological Surgeon/Robotic Surgeon. Interested in Human Factors Engineering, training & error, and making people better through electronic means. Tauranga, New Zealand. @Jamesduthie1


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