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

 

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

 

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.

 

“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

 

 

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