How Long Do I Have, Doc? Our Misplaced Love of Certainty

February 21, 2024 ◊ By Elisa Everts ◊

How Long Do I Have, Doc? Our Misplaced Love of Certainty

What Bites Most
First of all, I think we can all agree that one of the features of cancer that bites the hardest is the uncertainty.

I suppose the younger we are the more certain we are that we have some kind of 21st century birthright to certainty. Isn't this the age of science and technology? Doesn't science have cold hard facts that we can stand on like a rock foundation? I think the older you get, your expectations probably lower with experience.

The Big Question
Nevertheless, when we have a terminal diagnosis, with great confidence and not a little sense of entitlement to knowledge, we tend to ask, "How long do I have?" We are scared to hear the answer, but we also demand it. This is because we crave certainty, which feeds our illusion of control. We apparently believe that medicine is math and should always have a straightforward, unambiguous right answer.

Normally we want our doctors to be really scientifically grounded in cold, hard, both-feet-planted-on-solid-ground facts. We prefer someone who graduated at the top of their class because they have the steely-eyed ability to look at the physical evidence and tell us what the problem is and how to fix said problem.

Medicine Is Not Math

However, the question itself is a problem, which is that medicine is not math. Anything organic is a little more like the weather--we can predict the weather part of the time to a partial degree of accuracy based on past weather patterns, but often get it wrong because Mother Nature apparently gets a kick out of not being predictable.

It's the same way with the human body. That which is organic seems to have a will of its own, a lot like the weather, which does not lend itself towards predictability. As one surgeon told me, almost apologetically, "Medicine is more of an art than a science." Gosh, that's frustrating.

The Doctor Is Medic Not a Mystic 
Somehow this fact, which is kind of obvious on reflection, seems to elude us. And so inevitably we ask, "How long do I have?" as though medicine were either math or mysticism. I think that question has got to be the bane of the existence of every physician who has ever donned a lab coat.

All she can do is compare other cases of a similar cancer with totally different bodies she has seen over the years and guestimate. And to the best of her ability, she offers a tenuous number. And yet the patient tends to receive this number like it was handed down from Mt. Sinai, clinging to it in mad faith. I know I did. The ER doctor told me I had stage IV pancreatic cancer and I *might* have a year, possibly more with treatment. (He was wrong, but that's a story for another day).

What If the Doctor Is "Wrong"?
If the person lives longer than the doctor guessed, this is sometimes treated as a miracle rather than evidence that the doctor miscalculated. If they don't live so long, there is bound to be some anger directed at him. But we give that number so much credence because we so desperately want someone on this earth to be able to tell us the number of our days.

All I want to say is that we need to embrace the uncertainty. Don't cling so tightly to a magic number that isn't actually magic at all. Don't close off the possibility that you might far outlive that number. Be prepared, at the same time, to have to check out a little earlier than you thought.

This Is Faith
This is essentially what faith is. Whatever Spirit of life moves in you also requires you to dance with uncertainty. Hope is about knowing you can manage, whatever the outcome.

I hope you can find this kind of faith and rest in it, no matter what uncertainty swirls around you.

I wish you peace,

Elisa square portrait

About the author

Dr. Elisa Everts is the founder of Evertree Hope Management and is a dynamic public speaker, author and trainer. Dr Everts is passionate about helping cancer patients and bereaved people in their quest to survive and live a full life during and after cancer and grief. She has the personal experience of surviving Stage IV cancer and the loss of many loved ones. She understands the challenges inherent in these experiences and the importance of cultivating hope through the stories we tell others, and even more importantly, to ourselves.

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Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

I speak to medical professionals and patients, helping them provide hope when there seems to be none. If you or your organization need someone to help process the difficult topics of cancer and grief, let's set up a complimentary call, 703-656-6691,

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