In denial: When patients don’t want to believe they have cancer


In June, Rebecca A. Shatsky, MD, a medical oncologist, turned to Twitter for advice: “What do you do/say when a patient won’t believe you that they have #CANCER. As an oncologist this comes up every now and then and proves very difficult, looking to hear how others have dealt and what works best to help patients here.”

About a dozen people weighed in, offering various thoughts on how to approach these thorny situations. One oncologist suggested revisiting the conversation a few days later, after the patient has more time to process; others suggested sharing the pathology report or images with their patient.

Another person simply noted that “if a [patient] doesn’t want to believe they have cancer, no amount of evidence will change that.”

Based on the initial responses, “it appears there is a paucity of answers sadly,” wrote Dr. Shatsky, a breast cancer specialist at University of California, San Diego.

But for Dr. Shatsky, these incidents spoke to another alarming trend: a rampant mistrust of the medical community that is “becoming MORE common instead of less.”

‘Erosion of trust’

Overall, experts say that situations like the one Dr. Shatsky described – patients who don’t believe their cancer diagnosis – occur infrequently.

But denial comes in many forms, and complete disbelief is probably the most extreme. Patients may also downplay the severity of their disease, shy away from hearing bad news, or refuse standard treatment or their doctor’s advice.

Like Dr. Shatsky, these experts say they are also seeing a troubling increase in patients who don’t believe their physicians or don’t trust their recommendations.

“I think there’s an erosion of trust in expertise, in general,” said Ronald M. Epstein, MD, professor of family medicine and psychiatry & oncology at the University of Rochester (N.Y.). “People distrust science more than they did maybe 20 or 30 years ago, or at least that seems to be the case.”

Denial and distrust in cancer care are not new. These responses – along with wishful thinking, distraction, and minimization – are long-established responses among oncology patients. In 1972, Avery D. Weisman, MD, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, Boston, wrote his book “On Dying and Denying,” and ever since, denial and similar responses have been explored in the oncology literature.

Much of this research has focused on the latter stages of illness, but denial can be present at diagnosis as well. One study of patients with breast cancer, carried out nearly 30 years ago, suggested that denial of diagnosis generally occurs early in a patient’s course of illness and decreases over time, but may arise again in the terminal phase of cancer. Another analysis, evaluating this phenomenon across 13 studies, found that the prevalence of denial at diagnosis ranged from 4% to as high as 47%.

An oncologist delivers somewhere between 10,000 to 30,000 episodes of bad news over the course of a career, so there’s always a chance that a patient will respond in a way that’s on the “spectrum of disbelief,” said Paul Helft, MD, professor of medicine and recently retired director of the ethics center at Indiana University, Indianapolis.

Diane Meier, MD, said denial and disbelief are natural, protective responses to difficult or frightening news.

When patients exhibit denial, Dr. Meier advises patience and time. Physicians can also ask the patient if there’s a person they trust – a family member or faith leader, for example – who could speak on their behalf about possible next steps.

“The main thing is not to find ourselves in opposition to the patient ... or threaten them with what will happen if they don’t listen to us,” said Dr. Meier, a professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York.

And physicians should be careful when they feel themselves wanting to argue with or lecture a patient.

“The minute we feel that urge coming on, that’s a signal to us to stop and realize that something is going on inside the patient that we don’t understand,” she said. “Forcing information on a person who is signaling in every way that they don’t want it and can’t handle it is not a recipe for trust or a high-quality relationship.”


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