Chicago One look at Eileen Mulligan lying soberly on the exam table and Dr. John Marshall knew the time for the Big Talk had arrived.
He began gently. The chemotherapy is not helping. The cancer is advanced. There are no good options left to try. It would be good to look into hospice care.
"At first I was really shocked. But after, I thought it was a really good way of handling a situation like that," said Mulligan, who now is making a "bucket list" - things to do before she dies. Top priority: getting her busy sons to come for a weekend at her Washington, D.C., home.
Many people do not get such straight talk from doctors, who often think they are doing patients a favor by keeping hope alive.
New research shows they are wrong.
Only one-third of terminally ill cancer patients in a new, federally funded study said their doctors had discussed end-of-life care.
Surprisingly, patients who had these talks were no more likely to become depressed than those who did not, the study found. They were less likely to spend their final days in hospitals, tethered to machines. They avoided costly, futile care. And their loved ones were more at peace after they died.
Convinced of such benefits and that patients have a right to know, the California Assembly just passed a bill to require that health care providers give complete answers to dying patients who ask about their options. The bill now goes to the state Senate.
Some doctors' groups are fighting the bill, saying it interferes with medical practice. But at an American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago earlier this month, where the federally funded study was presented, the society's president said she was upset at its finding that most doctors were not having honest talks.
"That is distressing if it's true. It says we have a lot of homework to do," said Dr. Nancy Davidson, a cancer specialist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Doctors mistakenly fear that frank conversations will harm patients, said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of the advocacy group Compassionate Choices.
"Boiled down, it's 'Talking about dying will kill you,'" she said. In reality, "people crave these conversations, because without a full and candid discussion of what they're up against and what their options are, they feel abandoned and forlorn, as though they have to face this alone. No one is willing to talk about it."
The new study is the first to look at what happens to patients if they are or are not asked what kind of care they'd like to receive if they were dying, said lead researcher Dr. Alexi Wright of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
It involved 603 people in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Texas. All had failed chemotherapy for advanced cancer and had life expectancies of less than a year. They were interviewed at the start of the study and are being followed until their deaths. Records were used to document their care.