Thursday, October 6, 2011


In today’s NY Times Well Blog(, Dr. Danielle Ofri writes about the difficulty of informing a patient of his cancer’s lethality. She’s not the only doc who recognizes how hard this can be. 

Part of the problem is that although we adults are aware of our mortality, we deny it most of our lives. On his deathbed, William Saroyan said, “I’ve always known I was going to die, but I thought in my case they might make an exception.”

In my practice, facilitating cancer support groups, new members often ask me if they’re going to die.

I answer, “Of course.” What else can I say?

They respond, “Oh, I know that, but will I die from this?”

Here’s how the kindest oncologist I know answers that question: “I don’t know if you’ll die from this, but I do think you’ll live with it the rest of your life.”

What a positive, creative way to frame bad news! Accentuating “the rest of your life,” it simultaneously affirms finiteness and possibility. In an ideal world, frank acceptance of mortality would be a general cultural value. Whether we’ve been diagnosed or not, the sword continually hangs over our heads, poking us to do what we need to do. I can’t put it any better than now-departed Steve Jobs:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”


  1. Jeff, an off topic Q -
    I noticed an announcement from you about an upcoming town hall meeting on health care/insurance reform, & am wondering - where is the "refuting myths" site for health care reform, akin to for climate change?

  2. Thanks for writing, Anna...

    I'm not sure what you mean by the "refuting myths" site. Issues get pretty well discussed, I think, at single-payer-oriented sites like

    They especially get a probing in the film "Health, Money and Fear," which I've recommended in this blog. If you want to watch it online, go to

    Your comment is so timely that I'm going to run a recent newspaper opinion piece on the blog today.