Needle Biopsy


Updike, John




John Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1932. He is the author of 22 novels (including the famous Rabbit series), fifteen books of short fiction, seven collections of poetry, and five children's books.  "Needle Biopsy," an unrhymed sonnet written the month before Updike's death, is from a ten-poem sequence titled "Endpoint" that was pubished in The New Yorker in March 2009.  In it Updike writes from the perspective of a patient undergoing a biopsy for cancer.  His experience is different than we might expect, and it underscores the shock of the "casually" delivered test result.  This poem could be used to spark discussion among health care providers and others whose jobs require them to be bearers of bad news.  Are there ways of doing this that respect both the patient or client's right to know the truth and his or her need to feel secure and hopeful?

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Published in The New Yorker, March 16, 2009.


Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.


Health and HealingKnowledge and UncertaintyServing and VolunteeringWisdom and Contemplation

Big Questions

How does healing occur? What makes it possible?What do we know for sure? What do we not know?Should we keep a distance from the people we serve?Can knowledge be a barrier to wisdom? How?What does it look like to be truly present?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. The poem begins by praising Valium "in Jesus' name." What seems to be the tone here? Would you describe the poem as a whole as a prayer?
  2. What kind of experience is the needle biopsy for the speaker? What are his thoughts and feelings while under the anesthesia?
  3. How does he seem to feel about the doctors and nurses caring for him?
  4. What is the effect of "Days later, the results came casually through"? Why casually?
  5. What is the relationship between the result of the test and the patient's experience of it?
  6. Do you think the patient's sense of peace, security and warmth was simply a product of the drug he was given? Or is there some deeper truth in them? Do you imagine these feelings continuing after the anesthetic wears off? After the biopsy results are received?
  7. Is there a good way to give a patient bad news?
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