oncology

RECENT POSTS

Practicing Restraint In A No-Empathy Zone: At The Cancer Surgeon’s Office With My Son

Cathy Corman
Guest Contributor

I carry a genetic mutation increasing my risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. My children have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mutation. My 22-year-old son recently noticed a breast lump and asked me to join him when he met with a surgical oncologist to be evaluated.

The surgeon performed a skillful physical exam but provided neither effective risk assessment nor empathetic counsel. Afterward, I sent an email to friends briefly explaining what had gone wrong during the appointment. “We want to know how you managed not to hit him,” they asked. I did it by practicing restraint: slowly counting backwards from 10 and taking very deep breaths.

Here’s my countdown:

10. I did not correct the icy-blue-eyed surgeon with steel-grey hair and steady hands — 50? 60? — when he dissuaded my son from pursuing genetic testing. The surgeon had shaken my son’s hand, looked him in the eye, and palpated my son’s slender, muscular chest, identifying the small lump under my son’s left nipple. A positive finding of a mutation, the surgeon said, adjusting the top of his surgical scrubs, could expose my son to discrimination in the workplace and in obtaining health insurance. That is, I did not say, “The scenario you describe is illegal in this country.” As of March 23, 2010, with the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), if anyone were to attempt to discriminate against this young man in the workplace or in the process of applying for health insurance because of a positive finding for a genetic mutation (a pre-existing condition), this person would be subject to a massive lawsuit.

Cathy Corman (Courtesy)

Cathy Corman (Courtesy)

9. When this surgeon used the word “anxiety” for the eighth time to a) describe my son and myself and b) provide his vision of a course of action, I did not refer this man to Leslie Jamison’s collection of essays, “The Empathy Exams.”  “Empathy,” writes Jamison, “isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard — it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see…”

8.  I did not bring up this statistic: Though men make up only 1 percent of breast cancer diagnoses annually in the U.S., they may be up to 25 percent likelier than women to die from the disease, probably because of lack of awareness and late detection. Nor did I mention that generally male breast cancer presents with a detectable lump and is almost always linked to radiation exposure, unusually high levels of estrogen or a genetic mutation. Surely the surgeon knew these statistics? But my son did not. And I did not want to scare him.

7. I said nothing to this surgeon’s response to my son’s question, “But wouldn’t it be relevant to know if I carry the mutation?” His answer: No, you know you have a family history of breast cancer.

6. I said nothing when this surgeon dodged my son’s question: “If my grandfather didn’t have the mutation,” my son wanted to know, “wouldn’t he not have had breast cancer? And wouldn’t it be important for me to know if I carry the mutation, too, to assess my risk?” The surgeon’s reply: The only way you’ll know if you have cancer is to have the lump removed. The surgeon’s answer, while true, sidestepped the elephant in the room: whether my son carries a mutation elevating his risk of breast cancer.

5. When this surgeon ridiculed an actress whose name he could not remember for publicly disclosing her status as a mutation carrier and for undergoing prophylactic mastectomies, I offered him the actress’s name. Continue reading

Cancer Immune Therapy Headed For More Widespread Use

By Karen Weintraub

Cancer immune therapy — an approach that harnesses the body’s own disease-fighting system — is saving more patients with more types of cancer, and scientists are getting better at predicting who will benefit, studies released over the last few days show.

Among the findings presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s annual meeting, ongoing in Chicago:

— Newer immune-therapy drugs appear to be as or more effective than the first-generation drug, with fewer side effects.

— Genetic fingerprints may help determine which patients will benefit the most from immune therapy.

— Immune therapy may be as or more effective than chemotherapy for some cancer types.

Three years ago this week, cancer immune therapy jumped to prominence when studies revealed that it could extend the lives of people with lung cancer, the biggest cancer killer.

Last weekend, at the oncology conference — one of the biggest in cancer care — more studies showed the breadth and possibility of immune therapy.

Malignant melanoma (Prakash H Muddegowda/Flickr)

Malignant melanoma (Prakash H Muddegowda/Flickr)

For a century, researchers tried to unleash the power of the immune system against cancer. How could a system that fought off terrible viruses and bacteria be so useless in the face of the body’s own cells?

The potential promise the new wave of therapies is that once the immune system takes control of a tumor, it can search out cells throughout the body, and keep the cancer in check indefinitely.

In studies of melanoma, for instance, where this new approach to immune therapy research began, those patients who responded well to the treatment have survived a nearly universally fatal disease for more than a decade.

About 15 percent of patients with advanced lung cancer are still alive three years later, according to other research.

“The trajectory for some of these patients are that they’re going to be cured, which obviously is pretty incredible for someone with advanced stage cancer,” said Naiyer Rizvi, director of thoracic oncology and immunotherapeutics at Columbia University Medical Center.

Still, treatment with immune therapies remains largely experimental — “promising” rather than proven approaches.

Supercharging Immune Cells

It took the insight of a Texas researcher named James Allison, now at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, to make the difference. He realized that rather than supercharging immune cells to fight cancer — which had been tried in vain for decades — researchers needed to release the brakes cancer had placed on the immune system. Once this hold was lifted, the immune system could do its job. Continue reading

Ending ‘The War’ And Giving Up ‘The Fight’: How Not To Talk About Cancer

Not a good analogy for cancer: "A Battle Scene" by Luca Giordano, late 17th century, Norton Simon Museum. (Wikimedia Commons)

Not a good analogy for cancer: “A Battle Scene” by Luca Giordano, late 17th century, Norton Simon Museum. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Dr. Isaac Chan
Guest contributor

Hers was the face of someone defeated by cancer. Our conversation was grim. She wanted to “fight,” to continue treatment. But there were no more options.

I vaguely remember speaking, feeling hopelessly ill-equipped. I, too, felt defeated. As a young physician and aspiring oncologist, I wondered: How do we prepare ourselves and our patients for these conversations?

Thankfully, I am not alone in struggling with this question. A new theme in medicine has emerged: how to talk about dying. As a field, oncology has been at the forefront of this movement. Some suggest making exposure to end-of-life encounters mandatory during medical school. Others stress creating systems and providing more resources for patients and doctors to encourage earlier planning for death.

But in order to facilitate and advance this difficult conversation, we must first change the very words we use to discuss cancer.

When the National Cancer Act was signed in 1971, our nation’s political and social will was focused on a “war on cancer.” Our widespread use of this language is rooted in a propagandist history promoting the belief that, with enough resources, this is a conflict we will win. Consequently, victory became defined only by “defeating cancer,” or finding a cure.

A visit to the American Cancer Society website asks you to join the “fight against cancer;” and a majority of public cancer-related media is packed with more war imagery. While the war description of cancer has resulted in unprecedented attention and fundraising for cancer care, research and survivorship, a balance should be reached between these successful efforts and language that is a realistic assessment of what can be accomplished today, for the patient, right now.

Cancer is a unique disease. To take the war analogy further, cancer is not a foreign agent infiltrating our bodies, such as an infection — cancer is a coup d’état, a tumorous growth from within us. One of the great paradoxes of cancer treatment is that targeting cancer inevitably means targeting our own bodies. Continue reading