The New York Post's well-known history of clever headlines ("Headless Body in Topless Bar") has earned it a daily glance from many New Yorkers looking for the latest news – if not an occasional smile. But yesterday's headline, "TED IS DYING," provided neither. As a physician, I was deeply offended.
Even if the paper's editors turn out to be right, who are they to offer a medical prognosis? Do they know all the details of the case? Are they taking care of the senator? Even if they don't care about the feelings of the senator, his family, his friends, or any of the rest of us, there's no reporting in the article to justify the headline.
Yes, malignant glioma is a tough disease, and Sen. Ted Kennedy is in for the fight of his life. But there are patients with the disease who beat the odds and survive for more than ten years. No doctor has the right to take hope away from a patient. Who knows how Kennedy's cancer will respond to chemotherapy and radiation? We live in a time of new, exciting cancer treatments including targeted therapies that act in novel ways – for example, by depriving a cancer of nourishment by choking off its blood supply. Gene therapy, vaccines that stimulate a patient's own immune system to fight a cancer, and new forms of chemotherapy and radiation are all in active development.
When I tell a patient he or she has cancer, I try to give them an idea of the big picture. A patient has the right to know what they are up against; what is written in the textbooks. But the longer I practice medicine, the more I understand that it is an eternally humbling profession. We simply cannot predict the future – even, and perhaps especially, when we feel we just know what's down the road.
If a patient's illness turns right when I've predicted left, I'm always reminded of what I was taught in medical school over thirty years ago: "maybe your patient's disease didn't read the textbook." Now, I need to add, "or The New York Post."