Patient Care, Perspectives, Sarcoma

Eureka!

As I sat and watched, with awe, Vice President Biden’s summit speech on his vision of the cancer moonshot, I came alive and transformed… I felt empowered and validated. Oh the calamity of thoughts that went through my head. “By golly he’s got it!” Everyone has been there at some point, that delirium that accompanies figuring something out. “Eureka!” I thought. Mine hit all at once, and I have been reeling ever since that day of June 29th but my mind is settling to tell you a story. My friends, I am back, maybe not as often, but I will tell you I never left.

He sat across my stool afraid. He was bright eyed, sharp and thinking through the things I had discussed. “You are going to do what?” he asked, “Inject my sarcoma with a herpes virus?” I remained calm but my passion was bursting out of me because I was excited. This was my idea, an idea that has been brewing in my mind for the last 2 years, an idea that allowed me to use my knowledge to help someone, a clinical trial that I wrote. I don’t know how my patients do it; they find the wisdom, the courage, the generosity and open-mindedness to accept my words. Was it that I danced in front of him telling him about the science? Was it the cancer that inspired him to be creative? Was it his immense trust in me? It did not take him long to contemplate the proposal, to believe as he told me. Enter Subject 001.

Cancer, as VP Biden clearly remarked, is a threat the human race can unite to double the rate at which we make progress in trying to push and propagate the knowledge we have to solve its mysteries. As I reflect on this statement, the one person who comes to mind is subject 001- I get the equivalent feeling that we as humans were able to conquer space to get to the moon and back, I reflect on the day I put my patient on my trial, a trial that was unique in its rights, different and innovative. Subject 001 to me, is the first person on the moon. What a feeling!

Eureka! The day has come for us to find out that I am out of a job, that cancer has been cured, that the world is at peace, that we have overcome our fears and that we have won the war against despair. Yeah sure, we all dream. And maybe that is what makes us achieve our dreams; our hopes, our engagement and our efforts. Perhaps it’s a man standing up and saying, “What’s wrong? Why can’t we do this?” I sometimes recognize how hard it is for a General in the army to will his soldiers to go to battle. This is a war, an urgent need to develop cancer breakthroughs and a strong message for us to do things without submitting to bureaucracy, greed, and negative inertia.

“My patient is interested in joining this clinical trial” the bark of a General that does this daily. The coordinator picks up her task; she is as excited as I am. What drives people to work so hard behind the scenes to actualize a clinical trial still fascinates me. It is this ownership, this dedication that can turn the tables in this fight against this devastating disease… let’s not turn against each other, retard each other’s progress, allow politics and competition to stop us.

Don’t just sit there, do something! Don’t put it off for another day, don’t lean on reasons not to act, but rather seize the moment you are in and become part of the history-changing initiative, become a part of how we revolutionize cancer treatment.

Mo.

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Perspectives, Sarcoma

Waiting

 

Today’s post comes from guest Blogger, Fletcher Summa. Thanks, Fletcher, for sharing your story with us! 

 

 

I sat in the waiting room on February 8, 2013 in the Cancer Center preparing to tell Dr. Mo that I didn’t want to do this anymore. My treatment was entering the 11th month and my body was bloated and scarred and bore little resemblance to my pre-diagnosis self. I looked around the waiting room and I focused on what I wanted to say to Dr. Mo and settled in to wait for my name to be called. Waiting is something you become very good at as a cancer patient; my mom sat next to me lost in her usual game of Candy Crush Saga on her phone. This situation had been part of my life for almost a year: the two hour trip to Iowa City every other week, wait for a bed, get hooked up to chemo, stay for days, go home, feel awful, get better, then repeat. However, this time I could no longer go in and just face it the way I’ve done in the past.

The chemicals were really starting to take a toll on my body, especially my heart. The methotrexate I was scheduled to take had been cancelled due to my lab results. This meant that I would have only two rounds of treatment remaining—“only” two but it was dependent on the results of my heart scan. Regardless of the result, I planned to tell Dr. Mo that I was done with all treatment.

It all began when I was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma on March 21, 2012 and within weeks I began treatment, then on June 21, 2012, I underwent surgery. The surgeon removed the tumor and if the tumor was over 90% dead then I would have a shorter treatment plan; if it was below 90% then the treatment would be more intense. Yet because my heart scan results had not improved I was informed that I couldn’t receive further treatment without risking permanent damage. Though it doesn’t quite sound like it would be, this was indeed good news. This was the day that I waited almost a year for. “No more chemo.” And it was finally over.

Photo 1

I smiled when I heard this news and feelings of joy overwhelmed me. I could get on with my life and not deal with any more side effects. Aside from the doctor appointments every three months, I thought I never had to think about cancer again.

I was wrong.

What I didn’t take into account was just how much this experience had consumed my life. Living and surviving became indistinguishable. Together with the nausea, the doctor visits, the questions from friends and family, the pills and treatments, and the pain, being a cancer patient became who I was. My return to the real world after the chemo was extremely difficult. I simultaneously wanted to talk about it and to NOT talk about it.

Photo 2

 

Yet life goes on and my life had to continue to move forward. My hair was growing back, I was losing weight and I had more energy than I’d had in a long time. The mindset I had throughout chemo was that each round was a victory and that every small nauseating triumph would accumulate to success overall. And what is cancer but a concentration of painful battles? If I had won against that, then surely I deserved to live without any more inconvenience.

Again, I was wrong.

Without this understanding I might have gone through life thinking that the world owed me something and that every hardship had to be reimbursed. What if I spent the rest of my life asking “why me?” or cursing the wind every time my leg hurt, then there would be no time to appreciate the fact that I made it through the treatment. Sometimes, often times, life is unfair. But that is only part of the picture and a small one at that. Maybe this is the real lesson I learned.

Photo 3

It’s been 29 months since my chemo ended and I’m still not sure I’ve really ever left that waiting room. What remains though after spending so much time waiting and reflecting on my life, is an enormous appreciation for those who supported me throughout this journey. The fact that so many people supported me, including my wonderful family who sat alongside me in the hospital all those days bored out of their minds and not knowing what the future holds. To the doctors and nurses who were able to balance their work responsibilities while being kind and compassionate, proves to me that people are capable of extraordinary acts of kindness and strength. It is because of them that I made it through an otherwise horrific experience, and it is because of them that I appreciate life so much more now.

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Patient Care, Perspectives, Sarcoma

Inhabited

“It’s just so hard, Mo!” she exclaimed amidst tears, taking in labored breaths with her oxygen on. I had delivered the news that the tumors again were stable, which just meant they were not growing. “Stable”, I wonder where we come up with such terms and expect our patients to grasp the meaning. Stable, I guess, means: it’s quiet, not dramatic or anything, not out of control.. but then it is all relative. The cancer has not left her body. In each nodule billions of cells divide and multiply, and the CT scan is unable to tell the whole truth of what really was going on.

The conversation took a turn to where she was now sobbing. So lets do this like the movies, where a screen shot would say something like ….

10 minutes earlier

I had walked in and greeted my patient with a hug, she was a big advocate of my program and always supported cancer research. I had gone off on a tangent telling her about a new way of attacking cancer based on a test we were now doing in the cancer clinic identifying potential genetic targets. Here I go again sounding all sophisticated, but cancer growth often is dependent on what we call “pathways” that cause the cancer cells to survive in the environment they grow in. If identified, these signals can also be interrupted and the cancer treated, controlled or stabilized. I had found a potential agent that could be added to her current regimen and I was talking to her about this, when she suddenly started to sob.

“Stable” the word just hung there in the air. Not better, not gone. I felt the hard truth was that she was inhabited by this cancer. It was not going away like we would hope when we deliver therapy. She carries it along with her every day, in her body, memory, and heart. She must live amongst her family and forget that it exists. The oxygen prongs in her nose a constant reminder of the damage it had done to her lungs and her breathing. How does she do it? Is that what is hard?

Her next words, the gist of which was…..”I know the day will come when what you will say is not what I want to hear, that day when my tumor gets the better of me.” She followed by ” You need to blog. Your blogs help, they help me”. She is not the first to reach out to me to write.

What is touching is that she came with a gift to the scientific enterprise that comes up with answers and defines new attack schemas against this un-welcomed inhabitant. This gift, I explained to her, opens the doors to researchers that find ways to understand the alien lurking inside her for future cancer patients.

I held the envelope in my hand and I thanked her for her supporting cancer research: “every breath, every word and every gift goes a long way” I said. She told me that what I said helped. She wanted to share her message with her friends, explaining to them the power of what we can do as a collective group, to fight the rarity of what she has as we define the finest details of this complex disease.

Cancer has a different face now. It is constantly changing; evolving and so is our understanding of it. While this cancer is an intrinsic inhabitant of some of the people I have come to love and respect, never does my mind rest in searching for solutions to the issues that it keeps presenting. It cannot bend the spirit of the patient fighting, the family supporting and of the researchers who strive to impact the lives they so stringently try to save. “Stable”, while good, is far from where we want to be.

I am with you today my friend

Mo

 

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Perspectives, Sarcoma

Agape

Love.

Selfless, sacrificial, deep and full. It has been a week filled with events that have made me see the human side of selfless; where others have gone out of their way to help. My week started on Monday when I found myself in a church in Rock Island. In honor of one of my patients, who took an initiative that amazed me, writing, editing, and publishing a book in less than a month about her fight with sarcoma. She did not stop there; she dedicated the book to sarcoma research and all the proceeds. I was honored to be amongst the people who supported her, and I was met with an enthusiasm that surpassed logic. When I stood at the podium to give a few words, I completely missed why I was there. She had poured her heart out to the world in words that she materialized into a book that she selflessly donated to sarcoma research. But that is not all that struck me.

She had been diagnosed with a rare tumor that does not grab media attention. Do you know what I mean about cancers that get attention, those that get chased by the paparazzi?  One person today in the clinic boldly said to me “Pink, it’s all about pink, what about the other cancers Mo?” I thought of yellow for sarcoma. She asked “who are their advocates?”  Well, that is a hard one. Over the years while I have been building my sarcoma program, I have watched as individuals stood up, each person a unique representation of a very diverse disease that is exceedingly rare. Today I share a story that is a stone on the journey that helped me reach a book signing that open my eyes to the community that really wants to help.

I share the story of a young woman who was faced with a fast growing sarcoma that made time and her sarcoma stand still. She had one motto in life that resonated with many; it was “live it”. She talked a patient into an amputation and he realized his dream by going to the Galapagos Islands where he shot darts with the pygmy people and played with seals on a beach. She told people to dream and never give up, to never quit asking and to find the best treatment that could give them a life. She told them that living was in the heart, and despite being afflicted with a rare cancer, she found her calling to help others. Truly selfless in her fight, she made me see beyond what one person could do to effect change in a community around her. I met her husband today and with his simple words, and amazing gesture, he said thank you.

Who are the advocates of the rare tumors? In my eyes, they are the special individuals who traverse reason, fight beyond any doubts spreading awareness and bringing camaraderie to a lonely fight because they were the pioneers that got there first and learned something. They battled ignorance, loneliness, hopelessness and mustered the courage to say: we shall prevail! I bow to them all tonight as I reflect on the courage and bravery of their hearts, in finding a voice that is loud enough to penetrate the people around them.

A bike ride, a motorcycle ride, a golfing event and a book………….

Thank you my friends. You have achieved the ultimate love.

Agape.

Mo

 

Ride It Out for Amber, June 2014

Ride It Out for Amber, June 2014

Courage Ride, August 2014

Courage Ride, August 2014

Drive Out Sarcoma, September 2013

Drive Out Sarcoma, September 2013

Mo and Laura Koppenhoefer, book signing, October 2014

Mo and Laura Koppenhoefer, book signing, October 2014

Fist bump at the book signing, October 2014

Fist bump at the book signing, October 2014

For information on Laura Koppenhoefer’s book, Notes on the Journey: Living with Sarcoma and Hope, visit the Living in Hope Foundation.

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Perspectives, Sarcoma

“Notes on the Journey: Living with Sarcoma and Hope”

Tonight Mo will be in Rock Island, Illinois signing books with sarcoma patient and new author, Laura Koppenhoefer. Mo wrote the forward for her book “Notes on the Journey: Living with Sarcoma and Hope” and all proceeds go towards his sarcoma research program. Below is a brief summary of the book from Laura herself.

“When I show up at the clinic for appointments and chemotherapy, the day starts with lab work.  Within the hour Dr. Mo will know what is going on “inside me” and make decisions about my care.  This all seems routine to me now.  Three years ago at my diagnosis of sarcoma nothing was routine.  I started writing on Carepages.com to help me sort out this journey with cancer, and communicate that journey with my congregation, family and friends.

Three years later, I am still living with sarcoma and know a lot more about myself than what shows up on lab tests.  I know about courage, hope, my faith, my need for community, the importance of top rate medical care at a sarcoma center, how to “read” what my body needs, and more.  I also know that we don’t know enough about sarcoma.

“Notes on the Journey: Living with Sarcoma & Hope” is a compilation of updates from my Carepages, with a foreword written by Dr. Mo.  All of the proceeds from the sale of this book are going to support sarcoma research at the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center.  To learn more about this effort, buy a book, link to my Carepage or other sarcoma resources, check out the Foundation’s page at www.LivingInHopeFoundation.org.”

You can also purchase Laura’s book on Amazon.com.

The book signing is from 6:30-8:30pm tonight at St. John’s Lutheran Church, 4501 7th Avenue in Rock Island. Mo will make a few remarks at 7pm.

Laura Koppenhoefer

 

 

 

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Perspectives, Sarcoma

Perception

Clinic ended in the usual way. A daughter and her father came to have a closure visit. The Cancer Center was quiet as I made my way to the room where they were waiting. I walked in and we hugged each other deeply remembering the moments we had spent and the many struggles we had been through. My closure visits are usually at the end of my clinic visit, but there was something different about this one.  She looked down as she talked, her voice strained and her mind rattled as she spoke. There were questions this time on what happened, on why it happened and “please explain it to me?” She continued, “where is science to answer these questions, what is pain? And how is it that we don’t know more about what to do?” She sobbed “I saw things I did not want anyone else to see”. She re-iterated “don’t want anyone to see, things that have changed the reality around me”.  Her mother had died, her close friend, her confidant. “When my mother was coming for her chemotherapy, people would say to me I am sorry, and I would look at them and say “sorry? This was a chance to hang out with her, to be with my mom, to lie in the bed and bond as we watch television and shared our stories”.

This was a very young woman who got exposed to death at an early stage in her life. She wanted to talk. Her speech was pressured, she touched my heart. No, she penetrated ripping right through. She vividly described all the stages that she had witnessed as her mother became acutely ill, her voice was shaky, and I could hear her unrelenting grief as she told her story. She had met death, and it had changed her. She told me of how when someone asked her “how she was?” She would just look at them as if they had asked her something that did not make sense. They should rather ask her who she was, because death had left its mark on her, embedded itself in her history and future. Death had become a fact for her, a part of her life now intimate in the details she shared of what it really meant to lose someone dear. She did not search for words, she found them and the courage to share them with me for which I was honored to receive them. In this discussion, many doors opened as we settled and submitted. Her mother was so unique as her cancer was a rare diagnosis with sparse cases and documentation on its treatment. The husband looked at me and asked “did you learn something from this?”

I explained to them both that to me each human that I treated was like a piece of a larger puzzle I was trying to solve. I was trying to connect the jigsaw pieces collaborating with researchers in Iowa and in the nation. How each person gave us clues and a wealth of information that was used to create a network for us to better understand what at this moment I was having a hard time explaining. She asked me why is that? I explained that her mother’s sarcoma diagnosis was rare and that progress in these cancers was slow. I explained that the knowledge would eventually come to explain it but it did not exist now. In Iowa we have built a resource that is proving powerful in bringing researchers together uniting them in a common cause to decipher the cancer code. I have often quoted it as being like a coral reef in an ocean that is formed slowly over time, but allows the development of ecosystems of different living organisms that can thrive and be nourished.

Her questions continued, and I was stunned at the depth of their feelings, their attachment, and their grief. She traversed the mindset that death is something out there to fear, avoid, kick and scream about, the perception of the masses. To her it was present, it was unexplained and it was intimately associated with her recent loss. They were accepting the ambiguity and mystery around the other side. Our human bodies are vulnerable, and our lives are delicate. And death is bigger than life because it is inevitable and certain. She demanded answers.

They thanked me and made their way to leave. At the doorway, she paused; her tears began to flow again. As I sit tonight I ponder that image. How many of us stand at the doorway of death not fully understanding its implications in neither our lives nor the provoking questions that erupt when it happens.

-Mo

 

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Patient Care, Perspectives, Sarcoma

Random

Death is a door. It is a moment in time that is well-defined.  Once it happens it is irreversible. Just like the diagnosis of cancer. It cannot be undone. I have said the word “Sarcoma” to so many patients. Yet this is a rare disease. It stems from the Greek word that means “fleshy growth”. Yes it is old, and it was present in history before. It scares me to know so little about it. I am just perceiving its vastness. Sometimes when I share with my patient it feels like I am speaking a different language. Muffled I sound to the patient, loud to the student. When I teach it I find myself saying to my students “Sarcoma makes me look smart because there is little known about it, and not a lot of people grasp it. Although I do not feel I know much, it just seems enough.” It is hard to comprehend.

I just hung up the phone with one of my fellows, he was talking to me about a patient who was not doing well. I could sense the eagerness in his voice to find another treatment, but the realism that there is none comes from my experience. A resistant disease to treatments that depend on a very old medicine; surgery – Cut it out, until you cannot , then keep trying to slow it down, with an inevitability that you cannot escape. A truth I have been facing many days in only trying to communicate it better with those who suffer its consequences. We can never relive the past, we barely stay in the present and the future never comes.  But there is a point when all this stops. I oscillate between the concept of death and the diagnosis of sarcoma.

Sarcoma! What is it? I don’t know? We have defined it as more than 150 subtypes. It stems from a very primitive cell called mesoderm. The most common cell in the body but it only makes up 1% of all human cancers. Rare is the diagnosis. Having a sarcoma gives uniqueness to a moment that really makes the person in front of me rare. Having a diagnosis of sarcoma gives definition to a cancer journey, to a patient’s identity, and to my relationship with them. I touch upon the relationships in my mind briefly, like staring at scars that are hard to forget. The knowledge of sarcomas is derived over many years of experience; it is slow to digest, hard to understand. Just like the knowledge of death.

Why am I writing in this way to you this week? Just random thoughts as I sit here on the couch thinking. Perhaps like the random selection of a sarcoma that appears in a human being. Random but exceptionally rare. How can that be random? I share with you my inner pendulum as I swing back and forth between a disease that is so little known and an event so little studied.

It takes a lot of effort and collaboration to get together and understand this very difficult disease. I believe Sarcoma doctors are the only ones who collaborate for the right reasons. They genuinely need the guidance of each other and act as a team to help understand this very diverse, very unique disease. I think of my patient who is struggling maybe near his end, after resisting so many therapies, what else can I do? I think about how inevitably I will fail, trying to find the key to helping patients. We have had small victories in our understanding but it still remains a mystery. I am in constant battle against the unknown and I am about to be wounded again, scarred, as my patient represents my unforgettable memories of him. Wish I could just take a shower and let it all wash away.

Random are my thoughts today. Resistant is the disease I treat. In an endless battle I stand, ready to fight again.

Mo

 

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Patient Care, Perspectives, Sarcoma

Invitation

“Just tell him he has more than 4 weeks to live”, her eyes welled up with tears. I reached for the tissues that are so conveniently placed in every room in the cancer center. He had sarcoma in his lungs, and the surgeon could not remove them after taking him to the operating room. He had recovered remarkably from the surgery and had come in to the office to talk, perhaps seeking re-assurance. He said “I keep thinking about my grandson, and I want what’s between my ears to stop thinking so hard about it”. I handed him the tissue now because he had started to cry. A common occurrence in my clinic, that emotions are powerfully shared. We all know we are eventually going to die; the acuity of the realization always hurts. I reassured him and his wife. He likely would not die in 4 weeks, and I had treatments up my sleeve. He was receiving an invitation from death, that he was next. How do you as a human being understand that you have to die at some point and reach acceptance? If death had a language how would it knock at our doors?

He left feeling better that he had come, I was glad to relay to him that death, albeit near, was not as imminent as he thought it was.

Events in my clinic remind me of a lot of death. It hovers around me like a teacher, not an enemy, and it speaks a language we are young to understand as humans. I want to share it more openly because many are frightened to talk about it. I might be very comfortable with the notion of dying, but in me there is a unique struggle that I share with everyone who gets a call from cancer to die. For starters they meet me and they begin a journey each one different. It’s like looking into a kaleidoscope the richness of colors, shapes, beauty and vitality that the human spirit brings with it. There is also the fear, the aloneness and the uncertainty of the how? When? And why? Questions I have yet to answer accurately. I had a conversation with a colleague as I waited for the bus to go home. She talked to me about a patient that just wanted me to call him. He had transitioned to hospice. She told me he was so appreciative with the decisions we made that had given him 4 years of survival. Of course I will call him I told her. Many thoughts as I bobbed up and down on the bus, it has a way of percolating thoughts, having someone else steer you to where you need to go so you get to focus on other things. I have often told my patients, sit back, I am the bus driver. It might be rocky but I will drive with what I know.

How do we end this conversation? Well consider it a beginning of a deep understanding of a process of life we choose not to acknowledge until we receive the invitation to understand it. We focus on health, love, family and life. We do not talk about an inevitable process called death. It might be very lonely sending us invites welcoming us to the next process. It is sobering to discover that which many fear in their hearts teaches a deeper wisdom that is appreciated. I too travel to my own, and I wait for an invitation to join those who have already passed.

 

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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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Patient Care, Perspectives, Sarcoma

Ambiguity

“You have to go home, you have a blog to write” my breathless patient uttered the words as he awkwardly ended our conversation last night. I was tired, but not nearly as much as he was. Yet he was there, caring about what I still had to do tonight. It had been a long day for him, a long week to be honest and now has been admitted. Patients get admitted for different reasons. Some to get chemotherapy, others with symptoms that are hard to manage at home.

It takes me one look at them to know that they need to be admitted to the hospital and that this is another battle they must face. Putting them in the hospital allows many aspects of their care to take place. They are right at the heart of the “factory”, with all the nurses, the physicians, the pharmacists, the medication, the machines and technology. He looked back at me and he knew that I would admit him. It was clear he was struggling and it was time to offer relief to him and his wife who cried but agreed this would be the best thing to do.

What will happen? Is it the cancer? They and I hoped for many other things and many outcomes, something I could possibly remedy. It’s not easy to see my patients struggling with their symptoms. They are trying hard to “fight”. They get stoic and a little stubborn. I promised to see him the next day to talk over the tests that I had asked the team taking care of him to do.  The ambiguity of not knowing his outcome was a thought that floated in my mind as I went home. I am ending my night praying for a result of a vision of him feeling better.

I walked away from the hospital, leaving my patient behind, but in the good careful hands of the staff in the hospital. I think of his words, “you have a blog to write” and I smile. Sure, I will work on my blog. He was one of my friends that read what I write every week.  It touched me that he read it, anticipated it and knew that I did that on Tuesday at the end of my day. I never know what I will write about, I just do. I let my day and mind settle. Tonight, like many nights, my thoughts are with those who are in the hospital. They linger with those that have ambiguity in what their outcome might be. It is a difficult place to be. Please know I am with you.

Goodnight my friends.

Mo

 

 

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Patient Care, Perspectives, Sarcoma

A confession to a friend

Dear Hannah,

Where does one start to talk to you? I guess simply saying happy birthday might be the easiest place. Last week Iowa read about you and it was refreshing to see how they were saying we miss you.

I remember when I first met you; I kicked your family out of the room so you and I could talk alone. Something tells me you liked that, and you felt I wanted you to tell me what you wanted from me as your physician. I acknowledged your adulthood and maturity. You had grown too fast while facing your cancer. That day we formed our bond of trust. I am honored to know that your family shared with me that you valued what I had to say. I felt very deeply about you and I was hurt badly the day you left us.

I read Molly’s blog with a deep admiration of her courage and how she wanted to grow.   I mustered up the courage to talk to you in a letter sharing my thoughts that have needed to come out. It is my way of closure. You stretched my heart to a place it had never been, your search for hope in me made me realize how we believed in each other. Knowledge of things sometimes makes it harder to watch what actually happens. I confess that I struggled to tell you in part due to how I felt. Your amazing spirit, the love of your family gave me the strength to do so.

I remember the love around you. The fear, the kindness and the respect. I remember your quiet demeanor.  On the day I knew it would happen, I stood silently beside your bed. I fought back my tears as I watched your shallow breaths. I sent you a million prayers in my heart, my eyes talked to you as I stood there in my own language and I said goodbye. Something I have done to so many who have allowed me the privilege of being a part of it.  

Perhaps I am realizing now that I can talk to you every day. Through those who love you and care.  

Dear Hannah with love from Mo.

 

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Melanoma and Sarcoma, Patient Care, Perspectives

Readers Asked.

Instead of doing my usual blog post this week, I thought I’d change things up by answering some reader questions that have come through Melanoma Iowa (Facebook), Sarcoma Iowa (Facebook), @MelanomaIowa@SarcomaIowa and my LinkedIn page. A new page will be added to my blog called “Readers Asked” that will include your questions and my answers. Here’s the first of many more “Readers Asked” blog posts.

Readers Asked:

How did you become interested in treating cancers, specifically melanoma and sarcoma? Why the focus on these two cancers?

I decided to be a doctor at the age of 12. It was a personal experience for me that started after I had gotten stitches from falling down. During my medical schooling I was inspired by hematology the study of blood disorders and became fascinated with the cellular make up of this viscous substance. My curiosity of blood drove me to a career in cancer. During my 3-years of lab work I was asked to do sarcoma as it was the clinic that people feared. It opened my eyes to a whole new world that I found mirrored what I was seeing in the laboratory. Blood and sarcomas came from the same stem cell: mesenchymal stem cells. I would say sarcoma became more attractive as it encompassed such a variety of different types (150+ subtypes).

Why melanoma? The science behind it is riveting, it is smart and relentless; it grew on me and has made me very motivated to “figure it out”.

How do you have the energy to keep up with the emotions and science that an oncologist has to endure?

I think I am very passionate about what I see in cancer and its abilities scientifically. It’s the first cell to cheat death. The science is maddening and absolutely beautiful. My patients make me “bounce” and because of that I have grown more compassionate and it helps me endure.

Have you ever wanted to give up your job and find a more peaceful life without the stress of being a doctor that deals with cancer and all of the terrible outcomes that come with it?

Absolutely. Many times. My wife would say I am “attention-seeking” when I tell her I wish I was a garbage man, I really do. It’s a noble job that helps humanity clean up its mess but a shower fixes everything at the end of the day and I do not carry so much in my heart. What has transpired is I have discovered that because of what I know now I have a responsibility to help those around me, it is hard for me to turn my back on all the knowledge I have acquired and my ability to deliver excellent care.

How do you find work-life balance? What’s a day in your life?

Ah yes, this one perhaps I will blog about – thanks for asking this. Not easy. I do thank my wife for being ground zero to come home to. It’s why perhaps I married a psychiatrist. 

Can you give any ideas or suggestions on how the families of those with Melanoma can help support and say the right things to their loved ones fighting this disease?

I have learned that the best ideas come from you. Those in the battle, if only doctors would take the time to listen to their patients’ struggles. You are in the best position to offer the advice for other families who can learn from what your own experience has taught you. I often connect patients together to let them talk to each other. I really do not know what chemotherapy feels like or what a side-effect is. I counsel then connect. Tell me of your experience; it likely was the right one for the person you helped in their battle against this disease.

Do you have something you want to ask me? Email my assistant at julianna-kennedy@uiowa.edu with your question and I’ll add it to my next “Readers Asked” blog post.

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Melanoma and Sarcoma

The Teacher.

Elated. Content. And thankful. Today was a good day. I walked in to a clinic room and I asked “so what do you do for a living?” and the answer was well I am a teacher. I usually pause. I have an immense rush into my heart as I remember when I was a child looking at my teacher in awe loving every minute of the knowledge they had to share with me. Never did I dream that I would be in a place to return that favor that they gave to me. I usually do a “Mo” Bow and say your student has come back to help you.

In the back scenes of my clinical practice, I am bombarded with students, residents and fellows. Each at a different point in their learning curve. I try to teach what is not written. The art of medicine. Today I showed one of them how important it is to forget the rules and humble themselves to understand who the real teacher is. Each human has a journey that they must face, alone. I have touched on the voice in our head that is unique to us. But if we share this journey with others then we are not alone. I watched today as one human spoke to another. New connections were made. I watched my student being engulfed by the journey they were learning from. What a pleasure it is to be a part of that creation. To see the minds of those who learn to grow. It makes me proud. And today I am joyful.

My day was filled with atoms racing in all directions having a  purpose and happy. I found myself dancing in rhythm  as I “bounced” between the rooms delivering good news, all around. It was a good day. We had excitement build up in our minds like 4 year olds when we made a discovery. It was infectious, chattering away, feeling accomplished and on top of the world. We could not even sit still. I got a lot of hugs today sharing in the relief of being told you will be ok. What can I say except, I love that ! Perhaps that day is coming when I can walk in and always say – Hey there,  you will be just fine. Today was a taste of what I see in our future.

My students watch me practice and I watch them grow. “To know” has been the treasure of the learner. I am teaching them to  wield the power of this knowledge to understand how to make gold from metal; it is priceless. I said today that what you learn my student you must teach others, share with everyone and make sure you know who taught you.

Each experience shared. Each Journey travelled. Each human that I meet.

What wonderful teachers you all are.

Mo

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Melanoma and Sarcoma

Confidential.

It is a very interesting place to be in the room with one of my patients. The medium of trust allows them to share their intimate secrets with me. It is tranquil and exceptionally vast. Where am I tonight you might wonder as you read this? I guess I’m with myself; in a place where I do not wish to share secrets that are given to me in confidence. They are mine to treasure, each time I think of one they are very personal. I try to write about them and find my hands guided away from sharing. What a difficult thing to truly share with you all. While driving home tonight, my friend said “where do you draw the line with a patient?”  It made me think of barriers perhaps we as physicians put up to protect ourselves from our patients’ feelings and emotions. Is there a line one draws when you are evoking their confidence to talk about things that they hold sacred?

I have often thought about my voice on a radio. After recording it, I always tend to say “that does not sound like me”. Our voices are unique to us; we all hear a different version in our heads of what people around us hear. It’s my confidential voice.  It is fascinating to me that I am the only one who hears it my way. It strengthens the thought of my own journey in life.  Personal.  I feel when I am with my patient that I am hearing that voice that is so unique to them that I cannot find the words to talk about it with anyone. I feel I connect with them inside as they navigate their decisions. I share my thoughts of the same situation they are in, it’s like I dared to go down their journey too. When they take chemotherapy or when they throw in the towel and say enough, I am with them. It is that voice that I try to find the frequency.  And I try to align it with how I would feel.

The question is, how do I find my way back to myself?

I guess in this dark night, that is exactly what I am doing. Finding my home again, finding me. It is cathartic that I could share in all the decisions I made with my patients today. It is a pleasure at the end of my visits with them that they stand up to shake my hand. I hope they see that I too am shaking theirs, in complete confidence that what we shared is sacred.

Mo

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Melanoma and Sarcoma

What have they got that I ain’t got?

Courage.

You can say that again. It has been playing like the movie in my mind, with the cowardly lion staring at Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

Courage.

I have had an eventful weekend amongst my heroes, my heart is heavy. My tongue is tied. I’ll try to share why.  I saw so many. Perhaps I should call them butterflies. People bursting out of their cocoons. Families who had lost, people in the midst of their fight and those that had won. They all came out to stand up to cancer. They were smiling, they were positive, they believed and they made a difference. They hugged me and pulled at my heart. As I pulled on theirs. They reminded me of the battles I had lost, the ones that I am still fighting and the ones I had won. They said “Mo keep fighting the war”. Their eyes, tears and minds echo inside of me as I sit and write to you. They wanted our team to succeed. I am touched and humbled by my weekend experience.

I have stared into the eyes of my patients, wondering what it would be like to be in their shoes. I always say to them “I put myself in your shoes”. I’m really wondering now,  would I trade places? Would anyone? Here they are faced with an illness that could end their life and they say, “I want to fight”. I see the cowardly lion trembling uncontrollably, yet displaying the power to stand up to the Wicked Witch.

I have used many analogies to help my patients see cancer as I do. A good friend of mine on Sunday reminded me and said  “Mo you just know how to explain things to people- thanks for coming out”. I was looking at the golf course, the trees and the eager faces of people who took time out of their day to care.  “I think I have an empty brain that facilitates things”, I said back. I use simple things to show a point. Thanks for making that point meaningful to me. I stood before you and you all had the courage to ask me questions. I hoped I showed you that no question is “silly” and every question is the researcher in you showing its innate curiosity.

What have they got that I ain’t got? It is a loud echo.

Courage.

Mo

Courage Ride, Saturday, August 24, 2013, Kalona, Iowa.

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For more photos from the Courage Ride, please visit the Sarcoma Iowa Facebook page.

The Steve Yates Melanoma Awareness Golf Tournament, Sunday, August 25, 2013, Waterloo, Iowa.

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For more photos, visit our Melanoma Iowa Facebook page.

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Melanoma and Sarcoma

Nonsense.

“That is what the protocol says.”

I was annoyed. “So you want me to have the patient drive back 2 and a half hours because the protocol says…”

“I know it does not make sense and it is not logical but that is what the protocol says, Mo”.

This was going nowhere. Frustrated, I hung up the phone and I just wanted to break this rule that was nonsense. I was angry. Many things rushed through my mind at that moment. Too many rules I thought out loud. Clinic today was smooth except for this glitch. Got home and went to the gym, it helps me to sublimate and deal with situations that are not sensible.

I sometimes wonder how an idea starts and maybe a lot of you do too. Is it at the gym? Or in the shower? Or are “smart” people putting on their thinking caps? That would be a funny sight. How does one think in a world filled with rules and observations preset and pre-determined. How do you think “outside the box”? I have always thought of it as a black box that has edges that will all fall off. I have marveled at children and their innate curiosity always reacting to that which is new, how rules don’t seem to apply and how their curiosity leads to discovery and excitement. Can I access that part of me that was a child, so I am not biased by observations already made? Are all these rules necessary even when they overpower logic? How does an idea get trapped and shaped? How does it stay free and alive? How can we make our system flexible?

I always try to find a way to make it work. People who work around me know that “no” just does not cut it for me. The rule approaches me rigid. I flex it, find a hole in it, bend it and help my patient get to where they need to. I have watched other scientists do the same- that rare gleam in their eye as they see an opportunity to find a weakness in a theory or a concept. Glad these “thinkers” exist, like misfits they really help add spice to the mix.

I lost a close friend this weekend. She made me think outside the box. She made me bend cancer to fit her life. She made what I do sensible. Thank you….

Mo

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Melanoma, Melanoma and Sarcoma

Closure.

“I didn’t know I could talk to you” he said to me in the clinic today. We hugged and he sat down, “It happened so fast.” We were both fighting back some tears. “She was an amazing woman” I chimed, trying to find the right footing as we talked.

It was the end of my clinic and a family came to see me to find closure in the care of their loved one. This is a side of me that is very private and my voice is sharing this with you. My heart is not.  It is a rare event that I come full circle and have a chance to talk about someone who lived.

What is important to me in the closure of a patient who passes? I’ll share this intimate detail with you now.

When patients cross my path on their extraordinary journey, I deal with their cancer, their treatment and their ailments, I talk shop, science, but I never hear about the way they lived during this time. I never hear about what they did and what they really felt. I want to know that they embraced each day and that they did not let this beat them and that they fought for what they wanted. This was true for me today. I heard how she lived………………… “She hated that pill” and “the sun was all she wanted to do and went out despite you telling her not to” (my goodness, I laughed at that) ……… and we talked more………and I had closure. YEAH! My heart yelled. She LIVED. I always thought I would make the worst patient. I would never let an illness eat away at my life, and I would live despite what the “doctors” say.

“I feel better that I came and talked to you, Mo, I had no idea how to initiate this, I did not know it was even an option” he said to me, staring right at me, through me. I explained he was and always will be my family, and is welcome anytime. I have done this with many families. I guess I want them to know how it makes a difference to me and how it helps me heal too from the loss of a friend. “Thank you for taking the time” he told me, hugged me and left. Really? I believe I have to thank him for taking the time to come to me, to sit with me. One human to the next, is this so hard? What did he have to face? Memories of her treatment, bad news, decisions made……and he came anyway. “I was very anxious coming, I did not know what to expect.”

Perhaps our medical system should have a closure visit built into the system to allow physicians a chance to heal from wounds that sometimes make us appear indifferent or callous. Wisdom has softened my heart, and death has opened my compassion.

I never thought I would be writing like this, talking like this to all of you. When I first started blogging, I thought I couldn’t be myself and that I’d have to talk science and other stuff and be the “doctor”. I am discovering I am not able to do that. I picked Tuesday evening to write because it’s a clinic day for me and I am the closest to my patients when I am in clinic. I also realized how they make me feel.

Thank you, my friends.

Mo

 

 

 

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Melanoma and Sarcoma

I do not know.

“Why me?” she asked me today in clinic.

I’m home and thinking and this question just will not leave me. Really, why? I honestly do not know why.  It is a plaguing question. Many have asked me and I search hard for the answer. I am not about to answer this sitting here on my couch that’s for sure.

I have taken refuge in science and in the minds of the scientists around me. Science has answered many questions for me and has given me the ability to come to patients and explain their disease. And it is important to me to explain disease. It’s why I became a physician.

I have spoken of my heroes who take chances for others and participate in clinical trials and research to help us answer the “why me’s?” When I first started working in the academic world I quickly found that science helps reveal truths and prevents bad practice. Collaborating with more minds helped me make better decisions for my patients. Today I share what I sometimes come home with and some of the questions that make me freeze and I simply say “I do not know.”

 

“How do you know you have the best treatment for me?”

“What if I could find a better treatment elsewhere?”

“There is this miracle drug in Mexico. Do you think this is a good idea?”

“I have radicalized my diet to fight this. What do you think?”

“Am I just a guinea pig?”

“So you are saying there is only a 5% benefit from this treatment and it has all those side-effects?”

“Why should I do this treatment? Isn’t there anything better?”

 

These questions linger in my mind and make me wonder. And I do not know the answers. I task my patients in being the answer, in helping me understand, in helping others. It truly is a sacrifice of a higher order, of our human nature. I have learned to be honest with them, share my thoughts, my biases, and my lack of knowledge. I sound unsure, incapable and incompetent as I argue my case in their presence against cancer. It is a huge undertaking to try to explain this disease. I often find myself saying ” I am a good salesman and I am about to sell you a crappy car”.

Our treatments though exciting and innovative are still primitive. Investing in clinical trials and basic science, and research is our only hope to fight against this crippling disease. How does on choose what is best for a patient in an evolving and erupting world of knowledge. I push the buttons of those around me that dare to challenge the life around us and dare to dream of cures. The Wright Brothers wanted to fly. They created models and tested them, now humans can fly. I work with incredible talent, that tests their ideas, and think about what’s next. And for those who know me – I do push hard.

Michael Henry, PhD, the Deputy Director for Research at the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, has become more than a collaborator. Perhaps I can persuade him to talk to you about his research interests and how he made me see cells differently, opening my mind to the secrets of cancer biology and to ideas that contradict the normal we have come to accept. Together we are forging a stronghold in our understanding of cancer – our movement is only forward.

Thanks for reading.

Mo

Dr. Michael Henry and Mo

Dr. Michael Henry and Me

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Melanoma, Melanoma and Sarcoma

Connections.

What an interesting two days I have had. Has me thinking about the matrix of talent that I live amongst.

I was chatting yesterday with Ben Miller, our orthopedic surgeon who handles all the limb surgeries that sarcoma patients need. We talked about a sarcoma symposium and how to bring more talented researchers to understand sarcoma and melanoma biology. It is in these small discussions that I find the thrill of discovery.

I am surrounded by talent.

Our cancer center exists in an academic university environment. Like a spider’s web, we are able to connect through interactions that focus on improving the lives of the patients afflicted with this illness. Wherever I turn, I find an opportunity to connect with someone.

So how does this web come to life? What are its components?

As I learn to write to you all and share my thoughts tonight I want to paint a picture of people who facilitate all the work that comes into a decision for a patient. It extends from helping my colleagues in Missouri understand angiosarcoma biology or keeping it closer to home to understand obesity and how it affects immunity.

It’s Wendee who fights harder than me to keep my ship afloat.

It’s Tina and Laura working hard to maintain a registry.

It’s Marian fixing and regulating my clinical trials.

It’s Melanie and Reggie coordinating and facilitating the research that keeps our fires burning.

Many meet “Mo” and he is just an interface to the matrix that lives behind him. Our multidisciplinary teams that focus on the clinical aspects of caring for patients, down to Erin and Juli who help schedule all the meetings and make this a reality.

I have connected with Scott Okuno at Mayo Clinic and Mark Agulnik at Northwestern in Chicago. And now I’m talking to you. I wonder how this all started? I simply asked to get to know them and found them so receptive to collaborate. It must be the midwest.

I am blessed to be amongst such dedication and commitment. I can see no boundaries.

From Terry and Jo ‘Riding It Out for Amber’; to the Bailey’s for the courage to stand up and bike; to the Yates for yelling “fore”; to Nancy’s promise; to Alissa and her amazing determination to never give up; to Hannah for making me part of her family… no boundaries.

Hence this small introduction to my team- anyone can join us. These are some of the many faces that help me fight. Many who have gotten to know me have asked me how I do it every day, facing this.. I tell them, “I married a psychiatrist” and they laugh. Well, Arwa, my wife, knows better. It is the people that surround me that I draw my inspiration to help those in need. Understanding our connectivity to each other and the willingness of so many to put their best food forward makes me proud to be  a part of all of this.

Mo

 

Check out these websites:

Ride It Out for Amber

Courage Ride

The Steve Yates Golf Tournament

The Jim White Foundation

 

 

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Melanoma and Sarcoma

Take a Moment…

Let us take a moment to reflect on why we do the things we do.

It’s for my heroes.

For my patients that have battled melanoma or sarcoma and have helped move science forward. They truly are a part of every decision I make.

They are my true teachers, my inspirations.

Those who have suffered with an ailment that drives us to understand what makes it such. Those that help me help someone else because they dared to take on something new.

It is amazing to sit alone on a Tuesday night, thinking about things. I often sit in silence, and talk to those who have passed. What did I learn? What could I have done better?  What did their lives leave in lessons? 

I must admit that I miss my heroes as I sit alone on my couch letting my day settle. They motivate me and enrich a desire in me to find answers to hard questions that should be asked. They ask these questions of me and force me to think and explore the impossible, making it possible. They have departed us in life, but in me they linger and they still teach me.

My patients, those that are still with me and have survived, those who have said their goodbyes, those who are still fighting hard. They are my heroes. And I take a moment to remember them all.

A community surrounds each individual. The University of Iowa Foundation has a retreat once a year for those who want to engage in the fight against cancer with me. I share with you this event in pictures that sometimes speak louder than words. Thank you each hero. Thank you for your fight. Thank you for helping someone other than yourself. Thank you for you selflessness.

Mo

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Nancy and Jay White 1

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