GlassHospital

Demystifying Medicine One Week at a Time

Category: books (page 1 of 6)

How Treating Cancer is All About Playing the Odds

The following is a guest post by Dr. Andrew Howard:

Like many Americans, I was sad to hear about Senator John McCain’s recent cancer diagnosis. Though I don’t always agree with his political stances, I greatly admire many things about him, including his service during the Vietnam war.

Senator McCain has a type of malignant brain tumor called a glioblastoma multiforme (also called a GBM). This is the same sort of tumor that Ted Kennedy, Beau Biden, and Ethel Merman had. Since the news about the senator’s diagnosis came out, a lot has been written about the fact that GBMs are associated with a poor prognosis. This has made me think about the term “prognosis.” In my experience, patients and their families often misunderstand how doctors think about that term.

Prognosis is all about trying to answer the question, “What’s going to happen to this person?” It’s not always easy to tell. However, early in my training, my mentors taught me that all cancer patients can be divided into two groups, which they called “curative” and “palliative.”

If a patient was palliative, that meant that there was no real chance for curing their cancer. Treatments may still be helpful for slowing the cancer’s growth and reducing symptoms. But we knew from the beginning that the cancer would eventually cause the patient’s death.

Curative patients, on the other hand, had cancers that were potentially…well, curable. The goal of their treatment was to entirely eliminate their cancer. I often imagined those patients finishing their cancer therapy and going on to live long and healthy life. Eventually, I hoped, the cancer would just be a faded, bad memory in their past.

Even in cases where the goal is curative, there is still no guarantee that treatments will cure the cancer. Instead, treatments are intended to make it as likely as possible that the patient will be cured. Curative treatments are all about playing the odds. It’s like we’re at a casino in Las Vegas, and we’re trying to maximize our chances of winning at the blackjack table. With curative treatments, we’re doing everything we can to stack the deck in our favor.

Here’s another analogy: Imagine you’re out for a walk, and your goal is to cross a busy street. You could just step blindly out into traffic, but your risk of not making it to the other side would be high. There are some simple things you can take to make it more likely that you will make it across. You could:

  • Look to your left before you start to cross
  • Look to your right before you start to cross
  • Cross at a crosswalk
  • Wait for a walk signal from a traffic light

Doing any one of those alone would increase your odds of making it across the street alive. Doing two of them would improve your odds even more. Doing all four would give you the best shot. However, even if you do all four of them, your likelihood of making it still isn’t 100 percent. A speeding truck could come out of nowhere, or you could be hit by lightning, or you could have a heart attack when you’re halfway across. Also, even if you don’t do any of them, there’s still a chance you could, by pure luck, make it across the street alive. However, no one would ever recommend you try that!

Your cancer treatments are like these things you do to improve your likelihood of making it across the street. They are each intended to improve your chances of achieving a cure. They can’t make it absolutely certain you’ll be cured. What they do is shift the odds in your favor.

I’m sure Senator McCain’s doctors will do all that they can to stack the deck in his favor. Glioblastoma is usually treated with a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Though the odds aren’t great, a small minority of patients do achieve full cure, and go on to live years and years after their diagnosis. I certainly hope that for Senator McCain.

Andrew Howard, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Radiation & Cellular Oncology at the University of Chicago. He has written a new book for cancer patients and their families titled So You’ve Got Cancer: A Super Patient’s Guide to Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond. You can find it here.

Triage

The following is a guest post from Dr. Sarah Fraser:

During my surgery rotation as a third year medical student, my resident sends me to the Emergency Department to assess a new consult. She tells me to “make it quick” and I hustle down to meet my patient.

Mr. Jones is a 64-year-old male who rarely goes to the doctor. He has been vomiting for two days and has a fever. His heart rate is up and his blood pressure is low; his belly is swollen up like a beach ball. When I examine his abdomen, he winces in pain with even the lightest touch. The x-ray shows a bowel obstruction and free air in the belly, a sign of intestinal perforation. I know he needs surgery.

Stat.

I text my resident who tells me I have five minutes to get the paperwork in order before transporting him to the operating room. As I am about to start writing my note, a frail, elderly woman emerges from a different room with a troubled expression on her face.

“I need help. My husband’s IV is beeping and we need to shut it off.” There is fear in her voice.

I quickly decide that her problem is not an urgent one. The IV is probably beeping because the fluid is done dripping in, or maybe the line is kinked. But the man with the busted bowels–that is urgent. I need to devote every ounce of my attention toward finishing my note and getting that man into surgery.

“I’m dealing with an emergency right now, but your nurse should be back shortly.”

“We need to stop the beeping!” She is on the verge of tears.

“It’s probably nothing serious. I’m really sorry but I can’t help you right now.” I put my head down and continue writing.

“The help here is awful,” she says, returning to her room with her sick husband and his beepy IV.

A knot forms in my stomach as I continue with my note.

Was there time to have helped her? Maybe, but I had a short deadline and was feeling the pressure. Relieving the concerns of this elderly lady would have taken away from the care I was providing for a the very sick Mr. Jones. So I prioritized, and in doing so, I failed to address her request, leaving her disappointed and probably scared.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, when I ignored one person and prioritized a sicker patient, I was doing something called triaging. Every day in the Emergency Department, doctors and nurses are forced to choose who needs help and attention more critically.

Before entering the field of medicine, I remember sitting in the Emergency Department as a patient with a fever and chills, watching others who came in hours later being treated before me. Nobody likes to feel ignored. What the general public does not always realize is that there is a triaging system, where patients are given a score from one to five based on how sick they are. It is a system that helps us deal with the sickest first, though it can lead to long wait times for those with less serious issues.

Though I postponed dealing with the concern of the elderly woman that day, I also learned an important lesson. In medicine, you need to assess and assign degrees of urgency, and in doing so, you can’t please everyone all the time. And you have to be okay with that. What matters most is that you prioritize to the best of your ability, and do your part to keep everybody healthy, and most importantly, alive.

Dr. Sarah Fraser is an author, family physician and human rights activist in Nova Scotia, Canada. She is author of Humanity Emergency, a poetry collection about the need for more compassion in the field of medicine. Her work appears in the Canadian Family Physician, Ars Medica and the Journal of Academic Psychiatry, The Coast, Capital Xtra and on kevinmd.com

Holiday Miracles

Dr. Kolbaba and his book

Happy holidays, dear GlassHospital readers.

A book recommendation for the season: If you like hearing positive medical stories, ones that are miraculous even, then order a copy of Dr. Scott Kolbaba’s “Physicians’ Untold Stories.”

Dr. Kolbaba is a longtime internist in Wheaton, Illinois. Over the years he’s experienced things that defy logic and rational explanation. The interesting thing is that neither he nor colleagues shared these stories, fearing ridicule or disbelief, until finally the dam broke.

He spent three years producing the book, interviewing 26 different doctors, all of whom have surprising, heartwarming medical stories.

Dr. Kolbaba includes short biographical material on each of the contributors to his book.

Though the word miracle is used throughout, and the presence of God is alluded to, there is no specific religious tradition espoused in the book–so you can decide for yourself about the degree of providence within.

I hope your holidays bring peace and comfort to you and your families.

Medical Revolution(s)?

9780465050642This week an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine asks if our collective learning to handle uncertainty should be ‘the next medical revolution.’ It caught my eye because many of the medical educators I follow on social networks were abuzz about it.

Coincidentally, I’m reading a fuller-length exploration of medical uncertainty, a book called “Snowball in a Blizzard,” by Steven Hatch, an infectious diseases doc at UMass.

Both the essay and the book remind us to have humility: though medical technology and scientific knowledge have leapt ahead and continue to hurtle forward, our profession’s abilities to diagnose, treat, or predict future health outcomes with precision remain stubbornly elusive.

The metaphor of the ‘snowball in a blizzard’ comes from the world of radiology–in particular mammograms. That’s what radiologists who read mammograms are looking for on the images they see. It’s challenging and inexact work. Often they miss tumors that are cancerous; to correct for this, it’s natural that radiologists need to be extra cautious and have women with anything even remotely suspicious follow up for more images and possibly biopsies. [With negative biopsies, such mammograms become known as ‘false positives.’]

I agree with the thesis that we should all become more comfortable with uncertainty. But it will be challenging.

As patients, we want our doctors and scientists to be able to give us predictions that are accurate.

  • Is this the right diagnosis?
  • Will this treatment work?
  • How long have I got?

As doctors, we wish we had greater ability to answer these questions.

As ‘consumers,’ we are fed an unending stream of media that tell us what we ‘should’ do, what we ‘need’ to be healthy, and what will make us live longer. Much of it never offers the necessary caveats about the inexactness of the science. This will be an uphill battle.

I was pleased to see a chapter in Hatch’s book devoted to health media, featuring Gary Schwitzer and his website HealthNewsReview.org. Gary has devoted his latter career to debunking medical hype. His site is well worth perusing.

Gratitude Redux

an oldie but a goodie…

I just read a book called 365 Thank Yous by John Kralik.

I heard an interview with the author on NPR, and it caught my attention.

Kralik had been down on his luck in 2007: divorced twice, overweight, with a struggling law firm that he’d started, he was also failing in a new romantic relationship. He was worried about losing his seven year-old daughter, too, in a custody dispute.

He made a momentous decision: Instead of feeling sorry for himself (easy to do given his predicaments), he decided to be grateful for what he had. To show it, he vowed to write a thank you note every day for the next year.

What do you think happened?

His life changed. For the better. His relationship improved. His clients started paying their bills and his firm’s financial footing solidified. His health improved. He eventually achieved his lifelong dream of becoming a judge. To top it off, he turned his personal quest into a writing project. Within minutes of writing a book proposal, he received responses from agents who hoped to shepherd his project.

Every writer’s dream……

I’ll grant you that it sounds hokey. But there are a couple of things the book demonstrated to me:

Making a commitment to change is never easy. Kralik decided to change his perspective, and his results are indeed stunning. But he’s quite open about the fact that it was a process, and a lengthy one at that. He had times when he felt like giving up. Crises arose in which he didn’t write a note for several weeks. Sometimes he just flat out felt that he had nothing to be grateful for. But he always came back to his task.

And people really responded to him: from government officials, to clients, to his Starbuck’s barista. Everyone likes gratitude. We are human. It helps to know that our work and our humanity are appreciated.

There are other personal resonances: Kralik hails from Cleveland. Even as a lawyer, he shunned corporate law for his own values-driven law firm. He wrote a mission statement, and was rankled with inner turmoil when he strayed too far from it.

I guess to sum it up I’d write Judge Kralik a thank you letter of my own:

Dear Judge Kralik:

Thank you for sharing your story with me.

I am truly inspired by how you were able to turn your life around. As a doctor, I am touched by the mission-driven aspect of your legal work. In addition, I find that your quest to allow gratitude to suffuse every aspect of your life really provided a beautiful level of harmony to your story. I plan to share your story with patients and colleagues; I am always moved by ideas and examples that take something simple (e.g. the thank you note) and make it a habit that can lead to a virtuous cycle.

Congratulations on your professional and personal successes. I hope that they continue.

Genuinely,

John Henning Schumann, M.D.

Older posts

© 2018 GlassHospital

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑