False Optimism

Patients develop false optimism when doctors focus on treatments rather than probable outcomes. 

By Diana Burrell, published March 1, 2001 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Delivering a grim prognosis is never easy. But research published recently in the British Medical Journal shows that patients become falsely optimistic when doctors focus on treatments rather than probable outcomes. Anne-Mei The, Ph.D., of Vrije University in Amsterdam, studied 35 patients with small-cell lung cancer, which has a life expectancy of two years after diagnosis. Researchers interviewed doctors, patients and their families, and discovered a common pattern to the patients' fluctuating outlook. Initially, the majority of patients felt immense despair, which then developed into false optimism as they focused on prescribed treatments. When the cancer disappeared in x-rays, the patients felt "cured"--a considerably more optimistic interpretation than that of their doctors'. However, the patients' optimism vanished when their cancer returned, regrettably leaving them little time to prepare for death.

Based on their findings, the researchers suggest that patients would better handle their terminal illness if given a more realistic sense of the future. And after reading the study, cancer survivor Kitty McCague noted that society puts enormous pressure on cancer patients to undergo treatment. "If my cancer returns, which is probable, I will stay as far away from oncologists as possible and live my life to the fullest," she says.