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December 9/23, 2013

How Long Do I Have?

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of General Internal Medicine and Geriatrics, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston
  • 2Palliative and Supportive Care Program, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston
JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(22):2029-2030. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.11368

A 39-year-old woman was dying of metastatic breast cancer.

“How long do you think she has to live?” the medical resident asked.

“Maybe 2 days,” I replied.

“Two days? I would say 2 weeks. She’s awake, and she’s eating a little.”

“Well, I could be wrong, but I think about 2 days,” I responded.

Thirty-six hours later she died. My prognosis, while unfortunate, was correct. Prognosis has confounded physicians for ages, yet it’s the one thing that almost everyone wants to know once diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.