The first time I had to tell a patient they were dying of cancer

Many doctors can stay matter-of-fact when delivering bad news to a patient, but when they walk out of the room, it’s hard to hold back
Murphy Townsend
Dr. Murphy Townsend

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Dr. Murphy Townsend
Urology, WellStar Medical Group

Fifteen years
ago I had a patient with bladder cancer that had spread to her kidney. We decided to remove the kidney surgically, but afterward the X-rays showed that the cancer was much more advanced than we’d thought. I had thought this operation would cure her, and now I was faced with telling her that she was probably going to die.

I resolved not to say anything until I got the biopsy results back. At that point I suffered in my mind: Do I call her and tell her today? Or should she come to the office so I can have a face-to-face? In her case, I had her come in with her husband, and there were a lot of tears. Many doctors can stay very matter-of-fact when delivering bad news to a patient, but when they walk out of the room, it’s hard to hold back.

I turned her chemotherapy over to an oncologist, but as her urologist, we kept in touch. Once it spreads, bladder cancer is almost always incurable. So I was amazed to see her go through chemotherapy and survive. I saw her about three months ago, and she gave me a big ol’ hug. Some doctors hate admitting error, but in those moments, you’re just so happy to have been wrong. —As told to Josh Green

This article originally appeared in our July 2017 issue.

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