Patient Care, Perspectives

Injured

She died on Saturday evening. A wonderful woman; elegant, sophisticated and intriguing. She had battled her cancer; therapy after therapy, always trusting the decisions being made always trying to remain ahead, never giving up or in, never wavering. Her last therapy I recalled had injured her lungs making it hard to continue. I go back to that moment, it’s not easy to know that our therapies have consequences and sometimes the outcomes are not what we want. Damages from our treatment, whether in the short term or the long term, are now playing an important role in our choices of what we treat our patients with. Why bring this up now?

As most of you have realized I have not been blogging for a long period of time. There are many reasons, which I will not divulge, but I will share one. Over time I have been sharing intimate stories with you. Each blog is truly a touching experience for me and hard sometimes to materialize into words. Yet I found myself doing that time and time again. I had not realized that sharing these stories was cathartic to some and injurious to others. Each blog represents a humans experience and journey with me. Such is surgery and chemotherapy, they are painful, often helpful, and not always curative. I found myself revisiting scars and wounds that made up the utter fabric of my existence. It was hard to put a positive spin on things, as often they have sad endings. It was hard to read them after I had written them. So I decided to pause. In this pause I have been reflecting and rethinking, “how am I supposed to write? What reason do I have to write?”

Today I received an email from a patient who had survived her disease. I am quoting it word for word….please take a moment….to read these powerful words.

“Hi Dr. Mo,

I felt the need to write and thank you. After my last visit this past summer we discussed your blog and that day after our appointment I started to read it. As I sat in waiting rooms all day for my appointments I continued to read post after post to pass the time and couldn’t get enough. I signed up to get email alerts when new posts were written and pretty soon it became what I looked forward to each week. Between all the junk mail there would be the notification that a new post was up and that meant that I had a five minute break from the world.

This past fall I have been extremely busy with my job dealing with lots of traveling and deadlines and sometimes the stress tends to pile. No matter how overwhelmed I would be feeling when I started to read one of your blog posts all the things that seemed important disappeared for that short time.

I tend to worry a lot and am a bit of a control freak I’ll admit, but when I was diagnosed with cancer things that I thought were so important no longer compared to having it. That experience gave me a new way of living and seeing life with a new perspective. No one tells you though that if you are lucky enough to win the battle with cancer that eventually that new outlook you have on life tends to fade once things eventually start to go back to normal. There are times when certain things bring me back to that way of thinking when I did have cancer, whether its a movie, a book or examining my scar that I realize some things I worry about just don’t really matter as much as I think they do. Your posts are one of those ways I am brought back to that state of mind and remind me how fragile and short life is and how the things I was worrying about before are nothing compared to other issues in life and what I went through and could have gone through.

When I had cancer I didn’t share my feelings and thoughts that often with friends and family. I just felt no one knew what I was going through and I was trying to keep everything the way it was before. I also felt like I wasn’t worthy enough to talk about it since I had it much easier than lots of other cancer patients. I’ve noticed since then emotionally healing from having cancer has been a lot harder to deal with. Every post of yours I read helped me deal with those issues and heal in some way. Things I had thought about and didn’t know how to put into words were all there. The fact that you were able to cure me physically and even somewhat emotionally is beyond amazing to me. I have no way to tell you how thankful I am other than my words.

Although I know you don’t write as often now and I know you have good reason since you are a busy man I want you to know that not only are you a great doctor who saved my life, but you are a great writer who has helped me heal. “

Thank you my hero, for teaching me that all injuries heal including the deepest wounds. Your words have touched me deeply. That despite the injury that cancer inflicts on us, there are lessons that broaden our minds and deepen our senses to the ongoing conflicts we face in life. Thank you for opening my mind to the reactions and usually not shared. I truly am touched and indebted to your kindness and your words have far more impact that you can possibly imagine.

Mo.

 

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Melanoma and Sarcoma, Perspectives

“Stay out of trouble”

“Nice to meet you Dr. Mayhem” he said mispronouncing my last name, but he had me smiling. “A pleasure to meet you too” I replied to my newly formed friend. In the background of the clinic, the laughter this word created reaches out to my depths and pulls out something I have longed to share. If you have seen me in clinic many times, my closing statement to each of my patient is “stay out of trouble.” It’s like my signature. I want to blog about what that actually means and why I say it.

I will start by asking “the” difficult question. One you all know but maybe have never dared to ask. When a patient first gets diagnosed with cancer, be it melanoma or sarcoma or any other type, where do you think their mind goes? In my practice I have watched as my patients go to thoughts of death first. This is exceptionally vivid when I am the one who introduces this particular thought to them.  There is an awkward silence that usually follows. It is not awkward for me as I am the one being silent. This is broken on many occasions by a deep sadness, an overwhelming emotion that fills tears in everyone’s eyes who are watching. I create the space in time to accommodate and acknowledge this feeling. Silence has an end, it is not never-ending. My patients get into “trouble” trying to understand their cancer, their disease, their plan and how it is to be executed.  They are never left to do this alone. I will admit that initially they are lead to believe they are.

Truth has a responsibility of being clear, sharp and honest. Telling a patient that they have a terminal cancer is no easy task. Yet I do that daily, begging the question from the observers of “how do you do this?”  To answer this statement of “stay out of trouble”, when asked to do the same, I end up saying “no I will not” because I am at the heart of it.  I have marveled at the psychology of the irrational fear of death that drives us towards a helplessness that cripples us to give up. I journey deep into these “hot waters” pulling my patients out of an irreversible outcome. No one does it better than the person on this journey and I end up learning so much from each of my friends as they face this certainty. So I walk beside them and find myself saying simply “stay out of trouble”.

I usually say it as I leave the room; I point and stare deep into my friend’s eyes as I say it. I mean it; it is a real, reflex almost. I fought hard to get them out of the tribulation that they are being faced with. I want them to live fully and embrace what moments they have left. As important, I also point at those around them reminding them of the diamond that sits amongst them, that soon they may be forced to part with.

Stay out of trouble my friends.

Mo

 

 

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Melanoma, Perspectives

Joy

Three years ago this week, my brother, sister and I lost our Dad, Jim White. My Mom lost the love of her life. My boys and my sister’s kids lost their grandpa, my uncle lost his little brother…former ball players lost their favorite ex-coach, and a community lost a friend and local business man. He was taken from us by melanoma.

Jim White's Family

I do not pretend to understand what it is like to fight cancer. I have nothing but admiration for those that fight cancer so bravely all with passionate determination and hope in their hearts.

My family experienced what seemingly so many have experienced or are experiencing this very moment, losing a loved one to cancer. It sucks. It is hard. At times I become selfish, and personally feel that memories that had yet to be created were taken from me and my family. My faith and heart know that he is in a better place, yet it is hard for those left behind when amazing people leave us to soon.

Rather than dwelling on the moments that he is missing, it seems to be better to channel that energy into passion.  That passion to pick up the fight where he and so many others left off.

I feel I can speak for my Dad’s family and close friends when I say there were so many lessons we all learned being there with him as he battled melanoma. I feel compelled to share them in hope that other families might also look for all the positive moments, even when there are days where they do not necessarily shine through.

Here are three that stand out with a clarity that is still as sharp as it was 4 years ago when his battle began:

Live in the Moment – As hard as it was spending so much time in ICU, the hospital stays, and towards the end, at Jim’s home under the care of Hospice…those times gave us amazing memories, due to us being together as a family. Uncles, Aunts, brothers, sisters, cousins, nephews, nieces,  mother-in-laws, father-in-laws, close friends…we all were focused not on the daily tasks of work, challenges that we face day to day, or outside conflicts, but rather on LIFE. His LIFE. Our LIFE as ONE Family, and ONE community, all supporting my Dad’s one goal. To LIVE. And living only in that moment, striving to help him achieve that ONE goal, was fulfilling and beautiful. Life matters most when you are fighting for just 1 extra week, day, or minute. The Future literally becomes the Present, and the Past is a gift.

Faith – Faith in God. Faith in the human spirit, Faith in Dr. Mo, and his team. Faith that all this suffering has meaning. Faith in each other and Faith in what it means to fight one’s final battle with dignity and integrity.

And lastly:

JOY – That is a word I honestly, never gave much thought to prior to 2010 when my Dad was diagnosed with Recurrent Melanoma. But the word has not escaped me since he passed in 2011.

Almost 600 people attended my father’s visitation. I bet 500 of them used the word Joy or Joyful, when describing my father. And as hard as it was, we listened intently to each one of them, absorbing the power of that word that described how my Father’s Joy made a difference in so many people’s life.

Photo of Jim from Vietnam

As human beings we have great days, rough days, and everything in between. But I saw Joy in my Dad as he fought this terrible disease for a year. He honestly never complained. And I saw Joy in others at the Holden Cancer Center at the U of I as they fought their own battles. Whether they were 63 years of age like my Dad or 5 years old as some of those kids were when I walked through the Children’s Cancer wing.  The Joy shinned through them.

Do not overlook the power and difference you can make by extending Joy to others as we reside on this planet.

I am honored to be able to share in this time slot that is typically filled by such an eloquent writer and amazing person such as Dr. Mo. Wednesday is the day that my Dad would write his own blog through Care Pages, sharing his Joy of life to hundreds, giving them a little extra inspiration for their week. Now that same WED is the day I look forward to reading the brilliant and intimate words of a man who genuinely cares about the human spirit and his patients. Those whose battles have ended and those still fighting seem to feed him energy to press forward and keep fighting the good fight. With JOY in his heart.

I would like to end on an excerpt from one of Jim’s Care Page entries:

“Looking back to March 28th when I was released from UI Hospital after a 13 day stay (7 in ICU) I remember making some short term/intermediate goals…*attend Easter Mass w/ my family *celebrate grand-daughter Hailey’s birth *participate in grandson’s (Jaden, Tyler, and Dylan) birthdays in April, May and June *traditional Father’s Day golf outing and cookout *4th of July (special to me)…except for the birth of Hailey these occasions are nothing new, but they’ve never meant more to me. Guess what I’m trying to say is this month I’ll be 63 yrs old, but I’ve learned how to live, enjoy and appreciate life to its fullest just in the last 6 months.”

Thanks for taking the time to peak into a bit of Jim and his family’s story. Writing it was somewhat therapeutic for me. If you have lost a loved one to cancer, keep telling their stories. As cancer is just a small chapter in their amazing book of how to live life to the fullest.

-Jay White

Follow The Jim White Foundation on Facebook.

 

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Melanoma, Patient Care, Perspectives

Tad

He was very young and it had recurred in his brain. Tad was playing on his computer when I walked into the room. He looked healthy, his eyes bright and beaming with intelligence. I sat across from him in the old cancer center and he asked me question after question. I connected with him instantly and we talked. He always came alone, never accompanied by anyone. I respected his independence. He looked things up on the internet brought them to my attention. My melanoma program was young then and new therapies were still not available. It was hard to tell him about death, to share with him the lack of treatments available and to tell about how clinical trials work. He took it all in and shared with me that he would like to try something. He participated in a trial only offered here in Iowa. He became an instant hero. I shared with him the limitations of research, the problems we faced and how science alone is the best way to fight cancers that have no good treatments.  We discussed many thoughts and theories and he engaged with me as he went through his treatments. His tumors grew despite the treatment in his brain. I look back at the day I told him the news and he was wheeled off to surgery to have the tumors removed.

It had been 2 years without a word. I knew he was out there. He had not come back to see me nor visited. I thought about him a lot and what he was up to. I heard small snippets of his life. Tad did not want to get any more treatment and was living it up. I missed him and thought about his bravery and how his disease was just an obstacle that had crippled his life. I formed my own convictions about what and how he was living. Suddenly out of nowhere he came to see me. He was not the same, he lay there. He was crippled with his disease, his speech slurred, and he had a hard time articulating his words. I walked into the room, dazed that this man had made the journey after such a long time of silence to say goodbye. I sat down next to him, held his hand and began to cry. It is a rare moment for me to cry with my patients. He wanted me to know that he was content with everything, that he was comfortable and had lived his life fully. I was stunned at his outgoing attitude despite all the difficulties this disease had placed in front of him. He told me its ok, and he just wanted to say goodbye. I cannot find the words to express to you how that made me feel and I write this blog with words that cannot describe my sentiment around him that day.

Tad’s impact went further than anything I could imagine. One month after he passed, friends of his gathered at a bar and collected donations to help my growing program. His parents whom I had met on his last visit came to see me to share with me the event that took place. I am humbled by the efforts of all those who have helped create snowballs that become avalanches that remove uncertainty from the knowledge of this cancer. Helping us find ways to wipe it out. Tad resonates deeply in my heart and he showed me that “Every man dies, but not every man lives” his most famous quote from William Wallace. Tad died, but he lives in the Iowa Melanoma program, moving the science forward in ways I hope he would be proud of. Each year dedicated friends and family gather round and make sure that Tad’s legacy remains that he was a man who decided to live his life despite all the odds.

Tad, I bow deep and honor your courage. You are one of my true heroes. Thank you.

Mo

On Monday, March 3rd, I was a guest on the Paula Sands Live show in the Quad Cities, talking about Tips for Tad. Watch here: http://bit.ly/NUlU5P

Mo at Paula Sands Live

Mo tips for tad shirt

Tad Flyer

 

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Patient Care, Perspectives

Reconciliation

I shared an email I received from a patient’s wife in clinic today. That patient had passed away a few years back. We were all sitting in clinic going about our daily business. The email asked me to say “hi” to everyone. I had forgotten about it but then someone reminded me of him. So I pulled it out and I shared it out loud.  It tugged at us and told us “you are always in our hearts”. As I was reading I was unaware that Wendee my nurse had started to cry, she sobbed “don’t they know that they never leave us too?”. Everyone around me was silent, and I said “I think they do know”. The email was gracious, magnificent if you asked me. She was telling me that she loved my blog and that she felt her husband beside her as she read it, that his children, when they grew older, would read it too. She thanked me for the years I gave them together and how she held us in her heart, of how we are always on her mind.

I take the bus home on occasions. It was a strange ride for me today. I could not shake the feeling of this email, it stayed with me. I had read this alone and it had a different effect. It was Wendee’s words that were echoing in the hollows of my mind. I stared at the advertisements that were plastered on the bus. One said in bold letters “have you ever saved a life?” My thoughts floated away, I remembered a younger version of myself talking to this man as a brother and confidant. I remembered our bond, our relationship. Paul Coelho a Brazilian lyricist says “When a person really desires something, the entire universe conspires to help that person to realize his dream.” This was this man to me. He was a pragmatic man that understood his fate, but he realized a dream that I could not possibly understand. Here was his wife thanking me for years I gave. Yet I felt I lost the battle. The truth is no I did not “save” a life.

The bus stops close to my home but a walk away. I crunched through the cold, walking to my house. Thoughts and images of my interaction with him. I miss my friend. What a man he was. A man of my age, his wife still thankful, still appreciative, still supportive. “Do they know they never leave us too?” And I reconciled that disconnect that I have. I felt I failed, and she felt I won. Simple exchanges from one human to the next make a difference far greater than one can expect. I really appreciate the kindness, in helping me feel a loss is a victory nonetheless. 

Thank you.

Mo

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Patient Care, Perspectives

Inconvenience

Last night it seems one of the pipes connecting our water heater froze in our home. What an inconvenience! Stranded I was unable to go to work this morning. Commitments needed to be canceled, meetings moved and rescheduled, I disappointed many but this is important, we have no water in the house and I needed to stay home and wait for someone who understands pipes to come and tell me what is going on. I needed a specialist who could help me evaluate and manage my problem. But I had to change my plans and my day is not going as I had wanted it to.

When my patients are on chemotherapy (chemo), they are at the mercy of the cancer, the side-effects, their blood counts and the specialist. What I am feeling now is an understatement to how it must feel for them to be stranded with a situation that they have no control over. My patients make plans and have lives outside of their cancer that they really do not want to interrupt to be hospitalized and receive chemo. When they come all prepared to be admitted for their chemo, sometimes they do not get what they want. I have many a times delayed a chemo regimen and offset plans that they had. I see how frustrated they become and hear them say “but this means I am going to miss the wedding now”.  This is an aspect of my job I do not enjoy. Most patients receiving chemo are healthy and live active lives in between cycles, and I have stressed that they don’t let the cancer rule their lives, and that they should plan and we will work around their plans. That is easier said than done. Cancer interferes, ruining moments and events and it does not have a schedule.

In delivering chemotherapy to a patient an oncologist will try to stay on track but what patients don’t know is we sometimes have “wiggle room” as I like to call it. We can add a day or subtract a day to get things to accommodate some plans that my patients have. So when they come back for an unanticipated admission or are delayed for things beyond their control I do enjoy giving back “wiggling” their plans back into their lives. The plumber said he would be here at 9am but showed up at 10:30am. The weather is bad today, the roads slick, and cars in ditches, but he came through. He has taken up half my day, but he came, and now the hot water is back. I do strive to ensure that all my patients driving through their bad storms get to where they need to in the end. While the outcome can be as bright as simply fixing a problem to help a patient reach a goal that they wanted – it does make for a better day.

Mo

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Patient Care, Perspectives

Fragile

It was a slow day in clinic. Time was plentiful. Patients trickled in to be seen. I watched my practice in slow motion. I helped a patient make a better decision about their care. I contemplated on how fragile our health really is; on how symptoms dominate our thoughts and how having good health truly makes a difference to how we live our life. 

Cancer can be very silent in our bodies with vague unnoticed symptoms. It eats at our vitality and makes us weaker though we may not feel it until it is too late. It attacks us physically, emotionally and socially. It is difficult to convince a patient who feels well to accept a therapy that itself would make them feel worse. It’s a very delicate state to explain to a patient their vulnerability and how this disease could end their lives if they do not accept the therapy at hand. I find it frightening at the number of choices there are to navigate and how little time we have to explain rationally to our patients the best options they have.

What happens when the therapy we have to offer really does not have an impact on their lives or wellbeing? Should it be offered? How do you explain with all the progress that is hyped in the media that science for this one patient lags in finding a treatment that helps them get through their ordeal?

Today I felt I had that time, because things happened slowly. It was a refreshing look at care where as things moved slowly it felt like I could see more detail and focus more on my patient. It was like watching the replay of a touchdown.  I have always felt that healing is a process that needs time on its side.

Each patient as an individual needs to be handled with the utmost care, like they were a vase that could easily break. Perhaps that is how it should always be.

 Mo

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Connections, Melanoma and Sarcoma

Half Way There

Light when it strikes a prism splits into many colors.  We are all faced with life’s challenges that shape how we face our daily lives. How does cancer affect the mind of the person afflicted? How does cancer shape the lives of those who survive it? They are clearly not the same as when they started. They just missed death because they were forced to entertain its existence and question their mortality. They rose above the fear of loss and planted their feet firmly on the ground and walked the journey being asked of them. Many struggled, many questioned. In this journey, how do I fit in?

Besides wanting to be a garbage man I have often thought I could be a comedian. I only come alive in front of my patients. I feel the stage, the connectivity and the ability to find in them their strength, harnessing it to help them fight. How do I write to make me sound funny? To relive the moments that I connect with my patients, throwing jokes and fun statements to keep their morale up so that they can clear the hurdles that stand in their way. 

Today my patient cried and giggled. She was half way there. A treatment with a good outcome but very long nonetheless. When I walked into the room she sat hidden behind the curtain calling out that she was not crying. I could hear the choke in her voice. I pulled the curtain back and started my act.  I pulled the stool in the room and sat close reaching inside of me to find any word that would make her laugh. Comments on my beard that I was attempting to grow, on why she did not bring her cat with her and how her brother too tries to make her smile. Between tears and laughs we reformed the bond. I could see her pick herself up from falling down and saying ok I am ready for the chemotherapy. I thought when she survives this and moves on, will she remember how many laughs we had? Or would that be a forgotten memory? 

When I see my patients survive their disease, these laughs that helped them through tough times solidify a trust in me that make me believe I do make a difference. I hear it enough times and I share with you honestly and openly that I too forget. I forget their struggle, their fight.  Perhaps it is the joy of walking in and telling them that they are still disease free and that they are winners that makes me forget. I see in them a wisdom that was not there when they started, a strength that I know makes them face life differently and knowledge that they just beat cancer. 

Why would I want to remember how they struggled? When they are truly the winners.

Mo

 

 

 

 

 

 

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