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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

Interception

The little interactions with my patients are the highlights of my clinic. They help me in knowing them as people, understanding the pattern of disease globally and managing the side-effects that they could face. More importantly it is getting to know how they view their disease. Many of the therapies that we as oncologists give are as toxic and cause symptoms that can mimic the cancer coming back. It is hard to separate sometimes what is the cause of the complaint that people present with, is it the cancer, or the chemo? It takes time, a skill and patience. Providing the right atmosphere for the patient to talk is crucial for them to share freely their complaints. Providing a supportive and encouraging state, makes it raw and uncut but always honest.

Today one of my patients inferred that his disease was not responding to the chemotherapy that I was giving him. I listened, and let him narrate what he was feeling. He was feeling weak and had lost weight. I asked him some questions and he began to describe his symptoms. He described a high and low, like being on a roller coaster.  What appeared to me was a difference in the interpretation of his perception of what might be happening. I guided and steered him away from making assumptions, allowing him to tell me exactly what he was feeling. We juxtaposed his perceptions with what we both knew objectively and we worked together to a common ground where things were clearer.

I intercepted. I gave him my opinion that I felt what he was describing seemed more like the symptoms I would expect from his chemotherapy. I watched his face change expression. A relief came over him. “I trust you” he said “So you think I should keep going with the therapy?” Nothing had changed, it’s important to do the evaluation of the disease at the right time to make the correct deduction on whether the therapy was truly helping him. I stood by my recommendation, explaining carefully that it is hard sometimes to separate chemotherapy toxicity from cancer symptoms. His faith in the therapy seemed renewed and I said “it’s best not to cross the bridge before getting to it first”.

Mo

 

 

 

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Melanoma and Sarcoma, Patient Care, Perspectives

Do Not Touch

Observe. Let’s say this is the decision I have to communicate to my patient. I analyze the data in front of me and come to the conclusion that the best therapy is to do nothing. To leave this patient alone and watch their disease rather than interfere. Easier said than done.  I believe this is one of the hardest decisions I have to make sometimes, because we as a society have become used to the idea of doing something. Doing nothing is just not acceptable. Why is that? Pressure from guidelines and treatment algorithms, difficulty in teaching my students who are learning the concept of observation, and exceptionally hard to explain to the patient and the caregivers.

There is an itch to treat. I compare it to an itch because it is hard to ignore.  I feel it.  It builds up inside us telling us to do something. We just can’t stand there and watch. Even when the odds are low, or the statistics are not favorable. That irresistible feeling to do something comes roaring from the inside. Where does it come from? Why do we listen to it? I ask these difficult questions because sometimes I think I should just shake my head and say no, leave it alone Mo. I think your best option is to watch. Allow the disease to declare itself, and show you what you need to do. “I am a good salesman, about to sell you a crappy car” I find myself quoting quite a lot to patients as I navigate this decision. I don’t want my patients to feel abandoned or dismissed.

I have evolved in the way I treat my patients today. When I was younger I was eager to get a treatment plan in place for a patient. I believed that it was important to have that ready to help patients fight their disease. Over time I have also seen my decision-making change. I am more observant, waiting for the right moment to intervene with a therapy. I always  hope I make the best decisions for my patients. It involves engaging the patient, the family and their goals. Slowing down and trying to let the decision be made for me by observing has proven very valuable.

To truly help you as a patient, I want to be in your shoes. So let’s reverse the roles, I am now you. Faced with a difficult disease, being bombarded with knowledge that overwhelms and intimidates.  Yes I can be that person since I am vulnerable to this disease and its effects. I self-reflect to what I hold sacred as I ask the deepest parts of me. I value my quality of life, my sense of well-being, and my vitality to those around me. I do not want to interrupt my life, I do not want to be sick or out of sorts; What would change my mind to accept a treatment, cure?  If that cannot happen, then why subject me to this treatment? What’s the goal? Doctor can you please answer me? What can you possibly offer me that may make a difference to me? Why is it necessary to put me through this? Why do I have to suffer?

Important questions that I ask as the patient and should be asked as a doctor. Can you be me for a change?  In the eyes of this doctor I seek understandings in why I have to present a treatment that may not be helpful to my patients. Perhaps the best treatment is “do not touch”……..reminiscent of the oath I took of “do no harm”.

Mo

 

 

 

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