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Lethal Diagnosis

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Being diagnosed with an illness is a surefire method for making it suddenly become much worse. Characters who have suffered one or two mild symptoms — such as a cough, fatigue, moments of disorientation, etc. — will visit a doctor or hospital and be told they have some kind of tragic disease, then over the next couple of weeks or sometimes even days, they'll turn into feeble, hacking wrecks who ramble meaninglessly to themselves all day. Often time, the diagnosis is made with a Radiograph of Doom.

May be a psychosomatic effect, or may just be the writers cranking the intensity of the symptoms up, now that the cause doesn't have to be kept secret from the audience.


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  • This is subverted in Kill la Kill AU, Room 002108, in that Ryuuko was already sick but, when she is hospitalized, the doctors say she has to "stay for tests". Her condition isn't mentioned as to be getting worse as a result of that and neither are her symptoms described.
  • In To Heal A Hero Laurel is taken to the doctor after being discovered passed out, only to be told that she has terminal cancer. Justified in-universe with the explanations that the symptoms are very minor, and Laurel pretending everything's normal to reassure those around her is a major plot point.
    • Arguably done twice, as when she goes in for a routine check-up (the only one we see no less) she's told her cancer is advancing more rapidly than anticipated and her estimated remaining time has been cut in half.

  • In the movie Brazil, our first view of Mrs. Terrain has her with a few bandages due to a "complication" with treatment to make her look younger. Throughout the course of the movie her condition worsens despite her doctor's insistence that she'll soon be up and about, and in one of the dream sequences we see her coffin, which turns out to contain nothing but bones and something that looks unpleasantly like aspic.
  • Walt in Gran Torino. Sure, he was Coughing Up Blood anyway, but one gathers he was suffering with that for a long time before he went to see the doctor about it. Walt is never seen to get any worse, however his prognosis is pretty grim, by the way he suddenly tries to reach out to his 'good-for-nothing' son. Oddly, one never sees him deteriorate beyond that gruesome cough, from which he always quickly recovers. Of course, he is gunned down before his condition can kill him.
  • Finding Neverland - where the reason for Sylvia's coughs is not revealed until late because she kept refusing to get treatment or act like anything was going wrong.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Joyce Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who went from mild headaches to violent dementia in just a few episodes. Can be Truth in Television. Plenty of people never even manage to get the diagnosis before they lose it.
  • Scrubs:
    • A seemingly-healthy character comes in to the hospital because of a health scare on the news. After he coughs heavily they perform a chest x-ray and it is revealed he has lung cancer and dies within a few days. Lampshaded when one of the doctors questions how he could even be walking around with a disease that bad.
    • Subverted by Ben Sullivan (portrayed by Brendon Fraser)—Dr. Cox's best friend and ex-brother-in-law. In the first episode he was in, he was diagnosed with leukemia. He really didn't show any symptoms beyond an inability for his blood to congeal. In the third episode he's in, a year after his first appearance, he appears healthy but hasn't been seeing his oncologist for some time. Dr. Cox insists he get a workup and restart his treatments, but he dies twenty minutes after Dr. Cox goes off to run some errands for his son's birthday party.
  • Exception: In the first few minutes of the new Battlestar Galactica mini series president-to-be Laura Roslin is diagnosed with terminal cancer, but the character proceeds to play a major role in the following TV serial without all the stereotypical signs of disease (and, on the whole, survives a lot longer than most who befall TV illness).
  • Every episode of House. Every time the team comes up with a tentative theory, the patient's condition instantly escalates... usually with symptoms that don't fit the initial diagnosis. Often, considering House's radical treatments, the treatment itself actually can make them worse — The number of times they give immunosuppressant steroids to people who end up having infections, thinking they have some autoimmune disorder, is amazing. This is Played With in one episode where a woman comes in with a mild cough, which almost immediately is revealed to be a particularly nasty form of lung cancer. Instead of informing the woman of her diagnosis, Cameron insistently denies the results, trying to come up with a less serious explanation. When she finally gives in and informs the woman that she only has weeks to live, she repeats that she just has a cough - and the viewer never sees her again.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Odo has been the carrier for the disease destroying his people for a long time without effect. Once this information is revealed, he's deteriorating rapidly within only a few episodes. This is handwaved in-verse with the explanation that the disease gains strength with increased use of shapeshifting and the excessive amount of shapeshifting Odo has had to do over a short space of time has massively escalated his condition. Still, it's only excessive shapeshifting by his standards and it wasn't like he didn't shapeshift prior to them... and it still affects him faster than it affects the rest of his people who shapeshift much more frequently on a long-term basis than he does. It also creates a plot hole, since while those on infiltration duty shift often the vast majority stay in their natural state as much as possible.
  • The entire basis behind Breaking Bad is Walter's diagnosis with cancer, which begins his downward spiral. This is played with later on when Walt starts developing some nasty symptoms and his doctor tells him that his cancer is actually gone into remission and he is just experiencing delayed side effects of the treatments. By the end of the series, Walt's cancer is back and his condition has seriously deteriorated but that can be attributed to him living as a fugitive in isolation for months and not getting proper medical treatment.
  • Orange Is the New Black: Rosa, who mentions in the first episode she has cancer, is told in the second season that chemotherapy isn't working and she has only weeks left to live. (More specifically, she needs surgery, but the Department of Corrections won't pay for it, and she has no family or friends on the outside who are able and willing to do so.) This is a huge factor in her decision to escape in the second season's final episode.
  • El Chapulín Colorado has an episode where this trope is played straight, inverted, subverted and spoofed all the way. A nurse at a hospital is left caring for two bank robbers who were hurt in a shootout with the police. One of them is already out of danger, while the other is not expected to make it past the night. However, when el Chapulín shows up, he mixes up the medical records and somehow convinces himself that the dying one is healthy and viceversa, much to everyone's annoyance. As it turns out, he was trying to invoke Your Mind Makes It Real with the dying one, repeating him over and over that he was healthy so he would convince himself that he was healthy so he would get healthy for real. It worked, but unfortunately, the healthy one was repeated so many times that he was dying, he also convinced himself of it and... well you can pretty much guess how well it went for him.

  • La Bohčme has a bizarre self-fulfilling diagnosis when Mimi overhears Rodolfo telling a friend that she is dying.
    Mimi: I am dying? Alas!
  • In The Little Foxes, Horace is obviously quite sick, but he privately reveals to his wife Regina that won't have very long to live with his heart condition. It's very telling that Regina never shows him any sympathy for this. By the end of the second act, she's saying directly to his face, in cruel honesty, that she hopes he dies soon.

    Video Games 
  • Trauma Team has the diagnosis episodes. Redoing the diagnosis as new symptoms show up is even part of the gameplay.


    Western Animation 
  • In the Ed, Edd n Eddy episode "A Case of Ed", Edd becomes convinced he has the rare (and presumably deadly) Lackadaisycathro Disease, and almost immediately becomes pallid and feverish.
  • Claude Cat in the Looney Tunes short "The Hypochondri-cat" was such a hypochondriac that even mentioning to him that he looked a little green would cause him to instantly turn that color. This reaction was played strictly for humor.
  • Parodied in South Park; in "Bloody Mary", upon being told that his alcoholism is a disease, Stan's father shaves his head, confines himself to a wheelchair, and speaks exclusively in a harsh whisper.
  • In one episode of Hey Arnold!, Helga is bit by a monkey and notices some redness in the area. She looks up a book on archaic diseases and becomes convinced that she has contracted a terminal, monkey-borne disease. Other symptoms include sweaty hands (which she develops out of fear of death), irritability (practically her defining character trait), and loss of appetite (impending death tends to make one less apt to enjoy a meal).

    Real Life 
  • In a related example from Real Life, Reader's Digest produced a Family Medical Guide in the 1970s that went through several editions. One section of the book included symptom flowcharts, and it seemed no matter how one followed the chart the answer was always some variation of "Get to a doctor right away." There was no such thing as "Your headache may be due to stress" or any other answer that didn't assume the absolute worst about a minor symptom.
    • WebMD and other diagnosis-by-Web search systems have a similar problem. For virtually any symptom you enter, you can be guaranteed that cancer or syphilis will show up in your list of possible diagnoses. Also, every potential diagnosis will list death as a possible side effect. Another common joke regarding WebMD is that for every condition, it'll diagnose you as pregnant; not a lethal diagnosis, but still one that could either be rather shocking (or just plain weird) to those who don't disregard the diagnosis when they see it.
      • One has to bring up the old Mark Twain chestnut here: "Be wary of reading health books. You may die of a misprint."
    • Telephone triage (calling the local emergency department for advice, or calling a dedicated advice line such as NHS Direct) defaults to this state, due to liability concerns and due to the inability to assess the patient over the phone. Staff are trained to tell the caller to go to the nearest emergency department if he/she feels that his/her symptoms warrant it.
  • Pancreatic cancer often presents very mild and nondescript symptoms at first and is almost always rapidly fatal once it has progressed enough to be diagnosed.
    • Several cancers have a similar course note , based on how late in the game symptoms arrive, but even pancreatic cancer has a non-zero survivability.
  • The true kings of this trope are prion diseases that affect a number of mammalian species, including humans. Prions are proteins that are poorly understood, and the exact function of the non-anomalous prion proteins are still under research. Misfolded 'bad' forms of these proteins can arise spontaneously in the brain, then transform normal prions into the 'bad' form. Once the symptoms appear, the patient usually has only a matter of months left to live, and must undergo an agonizing neurological decline that progressively destroys the brain. The survivability is zero and there is nothing to slow the progression (even HIV can be treated). Neither Alzheimer's Dementia nor Huntington's has so rapid and terrible a progression. Prion diseases are mercifully extremely rare, but given their gravity, fears of "Mad Cow" were not entirely groundless.
  • Lewis Black once commented in one of his stand-up routines that while on a plane flight, he read a magazine article on diabetes. "And when we landed, I had diabetes!"