Of the 17 patients who completed the interview, 11 were women and six were men; 10 were non-manual workers, three were manual workers, and four were not classified; and 10 were white British, five were white other, and two were black British. Their median age was 55 years (range 28-79). The primary cancer diagnosed was breast cancer (4 cases), lymphoma (4), non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (2), lung cancer (2), and one case each of cancer of the colon, bladder, skin, brain, and liver. Two patients had a history of cancer.
Information about cancer and its treatment
All 17 patients interviewed had wanted basic information about diagnosis, treatment options, and common side effects of treatment. However, the timing of the desire for this information varied, as did the level of detail and content. Six patients had made efforts to obtain as much information as possible, but the remaining 11 patients reported minimal efforts to obtain information additional to that offered by hospital staff. All the interviews revealed a variability in attitude towards further information: patients did not want information about everything all of the time, but, at different times since their diagnosis, had wanted more or less information about particular aspects of their condition and its treatment.
Patients' attitudes towards seeking or accepting further information were based on their attitude to the management of their cancer. Systematic analysis of patient narratives revealed three overarching attitudes associated with a limited desire for and use of further information: faith, hope, and charity. Elements of faith, hope, and charity were present in all transcripts and affected information need and information seeking behaviour differently at different times.
To differing degrees, patients displayed faith in their doctors, and this contributed to their attitude toward seeking information beyond that volunteered by health professionals in routine interactions. Often such faith reflected an understanding of the complexity and medical uncertainty surrounding cancer and its treatment and ultimately reflected a will to live (see box , quote 1). Belief in the maxim that “doctor knows best” sometimes negated the perceived value of additional information, and patients believed (and some found) that additional information could confuse their situation. Having faith in their doctors' ability to successfully deploy what were often perceived as impressive and modern medical technologies often precluded information seeking.
Faith was clearly linked with the view that medical knowledge was difficult to understand. This was particularly the case among older patients, who, because they felt their knowledge and understanding of medicine was limited, believed that additional searching could be dangerous and exacerbate an already difficult situation (box , quote 2).
Some, who spoke of their faith in their doctors' expertise, expressed concern that information seeking might be perceived as transgressing their incumbent role as patient. Being a good patient was construed as “doing as you are told” and being a “good customer,” as opposed to knowing a lot and being inquisitive (box , quote 3). For most patients, this perception of themselves as apparently disempowered was rationalised and placed in a favourable light by relying on and having faith in their doctors' expertise. For most, placing their faith in their doctors' hands was a strategy that could change at a later stage depending on various factors, including the course of the disease and the need to maintain a sense of hope (box , quote 4).
A sense of hope pervaded all 17 narratives, and for some this was closely linked to fear. Patients created a facade of hopefulness, often in the most advanced cases (box , quote 1). Hope was indispensable for survival, and this interacted with information seeking in a complex way. For some it meant avid searching for information, particularly about alternative treatments, but for others it meant limited searching for or even avoidance of new information. Immediately after diagnosis, patients needed to be enabled to ask questions and search for information; without basic diagnostic information, attempts to find out additional information were often thwarted (box , quote 2).
At different times during their illness patients halted their information seeking because of fearful and contradictory information, often a consequence of genuine medical uncertainties. These periods of self censorship functioned to preserve hope by avoiding negative information about their illness and in turn helped to manage their fears associated with the potential of a negative outcome (see box , quote 3).
Contradictory information was a source of anxiety for most patients, as it often confused treatment decisions already made. Weighing evidence and deciding on the best course of action was difficult, even with a medical background. Depending on the immediacy of the issue, some patients resolved the conflict of contradictory information by calling on other patients and lay contacts (including medical friends) to judge between conflicting accounts (box , quotes 3 and 4).
Women patients often valued the knowledge and experience of other cancer patients more than medical information, and this personal experience often proved invaluable with treatment decision making. By contrast, the men rarely spoke of relying on the experience of other patients; once they left the outpatient clinic or treatment room they preferred a policy of “life as normal” in which cancer could be forgotten (at least superficially).
Additional information could exacerbate fear and threaten to undermine patients' hopes. Even basic introductory booklets could be frightening, and consequently some patients truncated their efforts to find out more (box , quotes 2 and 5). Patients were also aware that literature produced for patients “in general” was not necessarily relevant to every individual, and the difficulty of discerning information germane to their own individual situations was clearly frustrating (box , quote 6).
To avoid the risk of uncovering information that could threaten their hope, some enlisted the help of others in finding out new material. Not everyone had access to proxy informants, however, and those too fearful to assimilate additional information avoided all information sources. Emotive media coverage of “cancer victims” such as Linda McCartney rendered avoidance difficult at times and for some constituted an unwelcome threat to hope (box , quote 7).
The expression of hope often entailed presenting a brave face to others, and this could itself make it difficult to talk about or seek information regarding cancer. Getting on with life and maintaining a positive outlook was perceived as the approach to managing illness that was most respected by hospital staff, friends, and family. Asking for information beyond the basic details of the diagnosis and side effects of treatment could undermine patients' positive appearance. The pressure to present a hopeful facade also related to a fear of using up any reserve of sympathy and support from friends and relatives (box , quote 8).
The pressure to preserve a brave face and the linked pressure to avoid information about the illness was more common among men, who maintained hope through silence. Men in particular preferred not to ask questions of the medical profession, or people in their wider social networks, so as to avoid discussions of disease recurrence and, ultimately, death. Efforts to maintain hope could thus drive out interest in finding out further information.
Even in the face of their adversity, all the patients reported having been influenced by thoughts of others whom they perceived to be worse off or more needy than themselves. As with other NHS resources, information—or access to those who could provide it—was seen as a limited resource, rationed among all patients (box , quote 1).
Frequent references were made to the usefulness of the clinic consultation for getting reassurance, which was vital for maintaining hope, and obtaining help in interpreting additional information from independent sources. None the less, patients expressed concern about taking up too much of their doctors' time when other patients were waiting to be seen in the outpatient clinic (box , quote 2). These sentiments were more evident among those patients with close friends or family (most of our sample), who perceived patients without such support to be more needy and deserving of information (box , quote 3).
By making comparisons with others, patients could see that their situation was better than that of others. However, this favourable comparison could then be seen as weakening their claim for scarce resources and giving precedence to the claim of others.
Some found it easier to accept information obtained by friends and relatives because they had not personally used a scarce resource. Similarly, patients clearly found information easier to accept when it was verbally offered by hospital staff rather than having to ask for additional information themselves. Others, however, pointed to the legitimate needs of their fellow patients in explaining their reluctance to make further demands on the time and resources of doctors and nurses in the clinics.