Do you understand the goal of your cancer treatment?

The New England Journal of Medicine tends to publish larger and higher impact studies that will affect standards of care, but they also will print eye-opening studies that tell us something unexpected and give us pause for thought. A very important survey appeared in the Journal recently – it was part of a larger study that explored the attitudes and knowledge of patients with colorectal and lung cancer. This analysis of patients with advanced metastatic cancer who opted for chemotherapy showed that most patients had unrealistic expectations of cure – something that is rare in metastatic cancer. This is in contrast to earlier studies, many of which were done at larger and specialized cancer centers, which showed that most patients understood that cure was not likely. What does this study say about patients being seen in clinical practice that reflects the average across the United States? At initial glance, it appears that patients are not adequately informed or do not fully understand their accurate prognosis. However, it is difficult to interpret results of questions asked or over the phone and to surrogates who answer in the patient's stead as was the case in this study. This study was not designed to delve into the complexities of patients' levels of hopes and understanding about their disease. Still, there are important lessons for us all in these results. A higher expectation of cure was seen in patients who were non-white, or had colorectal cancer, and interestingly, who reported better communication with their physician. It means that physicians need to use better educational methods, but still retain their patients' trust and confidence. We live in a time where technology keeps pushing the envelope on outcomes in cancer, but where cure of many common cancers in the metastatic setting is still fleeting. The public needs to make fully informed decisions about their health care – whether it is for metastatic cancer or open heart surgery for coronary artery disease. In this age of information at one's fingertip, this should be much more achievable, but on the other hand, the savviest of readers needs a guide in the informational jungle. CURE's special edition on metastatic cancer, which will be available in December, aims to educate with compassion, realism and hope – we believe that all of these are mutually compatible.