Perspectives, Sarcoma

Don’t give up the fight!

July is sarcoma awareness month so I’ve invited others affected by sarcoma to guest blog throughout the month. Today’s blog comes from Suzanne Burkhart, wife to a sarcoma angel, Jim Burkhart.

 

When my husband Jim told me he had Sarcoma, I looked at him and said “Are you sure the doctor didn’t say ‘Carcinoma’”? “No, the doctor said Spindle Cell Sarcoma”. Sarcoma, what was that word?

Our journey began before the “Sarcoma” word. In January of 2011, my husband Jim was watching one of many bowl games when he felt a lump on the back of his leg. He pushed on it and immediately pain shot down to his foot. He kept that information to himself. A few weeks later, I walked into our bedroom to see Jim stretching out his leg. I asked what he was doing and he replied “I think I tore a muscle, so just stretching my leg”. I suggested physical therapy.

The physical therapist said he would not touch Jim until he had an MRI. That MRI led him to surgery for a biopsy. Right before Easter of 2011 Jim was told the dreaded news – Spindle Cell Sarcoma and an appointment was scheduled for the Monday after Easter at the University of Iowa.

We met with Dr. Joseph Buckwalter and he explained more about sarcoma, but your mind is a whirl and you don’t fully comprehend. Jim was scheduled for surgery that Friday in hopes to clean up the tumor, to get a full understanding of what we were dealing with. Friday’s surgery came and after surgery, Dr. Buckwalter told me that in order to save Jim’s life, he would have to amputate the left leg. I cried….whatever else was said I don’t remember other than those words “we are going to have to amputate”.

We went home to tell our children. Sam was 9, Henry 8, Eleanor 5 and Charlotte had just turned two. How do you find the words to tell your kids that their world was going to change, that their dad was going to look different. Our family cried, the boys begged for it to not happen, that they would be better behaved, we prayed. We went back to Dr. Buckwalter to discuss the amputation.

Suzanne Burkhart pic 3

Due to scheduling conflicts (ours because we wanted to wait until after our son’s First Communion) we met with Dr. Ben Miller. We really felt at ease with Dr. Miller. Dr. Buckwalter was a very good doctor, but at the time, I was very angry with Dr. Buckwalter for the news he had delivered. Surgery was scheduled for May 20- Jim and my 11th wedding anniversary. For me, what better day, since I promised Jim, in sickness and in health.

I think around this time we were introduced to Dr. Milhem. We were told to call him Mo. He didn’t sugar coat, he didn’t make promises but he got down to business, his business, of understanding and treating Sarcoma. The first form of business was to find out that we were dealing with Synovial Sarcoma. Visit after visit, we either came out of Mo’s office with a sense of relief in knowing that the cancer was behaving itself or with a new plan of chemo or clinical trial. Never once did Mo ever fill us with false hope if he didn’t have an answer as to why the Sarcoma was behaving a certain way. He would give us the “I need to talk this over with my colleagues to see if other doctors had any type if sarcomas acting this way. Email me tomorrow and I will have an answer.”

Suzanne Burkhart pic 1

This is how it is with Mo. Our lives were up and down and he was the steady in our tumultuous waters. We went for a second opinion in New York and came back to Mo with our findings. We went to NIH (National Institutes of Health) with Mo’s blessing for Jim to be in yet another clinical trial. We always pushed Mo and he pushed further and harder for Jim.

In March of this year, Jim had a gall bladder attack. With everything he had going on, a gall bladder attack seemed minor. We had our local doctors make contact with Iowa on how to treat. A week off of treatment and Jim had his gall bladder removed. Another week off of treatment and Jim was chomping at the bit to get back on treatment. Mo agreed. At our next appointment, we were told that the tumors in Jim’s lungs were still growing but, in true Mo style, he had one more thing to try, but this was it. If this treatment didn’t work, than he has exhausted all his resources.

Early in the morning of May 16th, Jim called out for me. I ran to him and he was struggling to breathe. We had an appointment later that morning in Iowa but I said to him, “Babe, I think we need to go to the hospital”. He agreed. The ER doctor told me the news that I knew, dreaded to hear, but knew I had to know. “He is dying” the doctor told me. I emailed Mo, I needed him to know. Oh, how I wish he could have been there, but we were too far away. I went in and told Jim “Babe, I think we are getting to end of our journey here”. We cried. I went to get our kids…family and friends gathered. By 10:15 that morning, my Jim was gone but I knew he was at peace.

The next morning I again emailed Mo. I thanked him for giving Jim three more years he may not have had. I told Mo to keep doing what he was doing…fighting for his patients in their battles against Sarcoma. And on our end, we will continue to keep doing what we have done for two years…raising much needed funds for Sarcoma Research through Drive Out Sarcoma.

Suzanne Burkhart pic 2

I leave you all with this. Jim never complained, not about treatment, not about why he had cancer. He accepted his fate and trusted in Mo to help him. He also had a strong faith in God to help him through diagnosis, treatment and death. While the kids and I will miss Jim every day of our lives, we know he is at peace.

-Suzanne Burkhart

Standard
Melanoma, Perspectives

Cheers and Have a Wonderful Life!

Since May is Melanoma Awareness Month, I’ve invited others affected by melanoma to guest blog on the 7th, 14th and the 21st. I’ll wrap up the month by blogging again on the 28th. Today’s blog is written by Brett Yates. Enjoy.

 

We’ve all been conditioned to get our regular checkups, right? A physical every year. A dental cleaning twice a year. We even get the car oil changed every 3 months. Why isn’t a skin cancer screening on that list of necessities we take care of each year? It should be.

Our Story

We had known that its return was possible for years, but if I’m honest I wasn’t considering it seriously. So, on January 31, 2011, it was with great surprise and shock we learned that my father’s melanoma had spread. Dad was first diagnosed with melanoma in 2007 when a tumor was found growing on his shoulder. It was surgically removed and he hoped that would be the last he would hear of it. It returned 3 years later and was again surgically removed. But this time it stuck around. Tumors were discovered in his liver, lungs, spinal cord, and brain.

From the time of Dad’s original melanoma diagnosis in 2007 to the end of 2010 before his tumor metastasized, his life was fairly normal. He was getting checked regularly and doing everything a person with a melanoma diagnosis should do. However, once the cancer spread, it did so with a vengeance. We had less than 3 months with him after the stage IV diagnosis.

Brett Yates- Yates Family

My brother, Dustin, recalls one of Dad’s last outings:

“I remember Dad had wanted to go down to the KWWL studios for quite some time for a tour and we finally got it scheduled. It just so happened to fall on Valentine’s Day 2011. We made an evening of it and surprised him before we went out to eat. He had no idea that we had been planning it. He was very surprised. He got to meet the whole group and even got to sit in Ron’s chair. I’m forever grateful to Mark [Schnackenberg], more than he’ll ever know, for being so generous in allowing us to come for a tour and even hang out for both of the evening newscasts.

Who would have known at the time that it was one of the last outings with Dad. It also turned out to be the last picture of him. Looking back at it now, I can’t help but think how very thankful I am that we were able to do that for him.“

SAMSUNG

Who Was My Father?

To give you an idea of who my father was, what his effect on the world was, I need only tell you about his visitation. I stood for nearly 4 hours greeting a line of people wrapped around the block who had come to pay their respects. Many waited in line for an hour and a half before reaching the visitation room. My father had an effect on people the extent of which I hadn’t truly known until that visitation. He had a quiet emotion that was often hidden behind his strong, boisterous personality. I think that is what endeared him to so many people. He loved life so clearly and loved the company of others. It’s that effect on people we should all strive to replicate. And if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll have the same turnout when it’s our time.

Brett Yates- Steve and Sons

How We’re Fighting Melanoma Now

Playing golf was one of Dad’s favorite pastimes, so every year around the anniversary of his death, we gather to celebrate his life over a round of golf with the goal to raise money for research and awareness of melanoma. To date, and with the help of everyone who participates and donates, the tournament has raised over $50,000 for research being done by Dr. Mo and his team at the University of Iowa.

Brett Yates- SYMA Check

My mother describes the reason for wanting to do the golf tournament by quoting something she read once:

Why does God allow disasters to happen? Is He punishing us? The Bible does not give an adequate explanation for disasters any more than it can for diseases such as cancer. There are times when no answers will do. There are times when nothing else will do except we roll up our sleeves and pitch in to do whatever we can to reverse the bad fortune of the moment.

Brett Yates- Steve and Lani

We’re hoping to do the golf tournament each year to continue the fight against this terrible disease. We would love to get more people involved. If you’ve been affected by melanoma in some way, maybe you have a family member who has died, maybe you’ve survived melanoma yourself, or maybe you just want to be involved, we’d love to hear from you. This past year, Molly Menard, who wrote last week’s post, was there with doctors from Iowa City who volunteered their time for free skin cancer screenings. Those screenings may have saved someone’s life!

Let’s work together to end this disease. We’d love to acknowledge you and your family at the event. We’ll even change the name of the tournament to the Iowa Melanoma Golf Tournament (or something more catchy :)) if more families join the cause. You can learn more about the tournament at www.steveyatesmelanomaawareness.org.

A Final Note From Dad

I’ll leave you with words from Dad himself. Quoted below is an email he sent to his colleagues at John Deere upon his retirement. It is surprisingly appropriate, especially if you think of his retiring not just from 31 years of work, but from 63 years of life.

“Well my time has come. It’s time to hit the send button on this last e-mail.

Today is my last day as an active John Deere employee. I do not know where the time has gone. It has been a good run, but I am looking forward to the change. I’ve known many of you for more than 30 years. Some say the toughest part of retiring is saying goodbye to friends and colleagues…

Well, for me…what they say is true.

I wish each of you all the best in the years to come, both within John Deere and personally.

I’ve enjoyed working with…and knowing…all of you.

God’s rich blessings and best wishes to each of you.

If you need a 4th to complete a foursome sometime…give me a call.

Cheers and Have a Wonderful Life!!”

Brett Yates- Steve North Endzone

Standard
Melanoma, Perspectives

Eclipse

It is hidden, and it is beautiful. It is like a veil that conceals but it is a phenomenon worth watching. Over time we have come to understand how and what it is. Does this knowledge subtract from its beauty when we know the truth of what actually happens? I feel that it adds a dimension of appreciation that is not easy to explain.  My team and I visited a scientist lab that transported me to new dimension a place that is foreign, different and exciting.

We walked through the halls like a maze to a room. Sometimes it feels like I’m in a spaceship walking through the different passages. What I saw was new and strange. Where were the rules? Cancer has no boundaries. Ok let me stretch my mind around what I am seeing. Can I see what I am not seeing?  Cancer is constantly redefining the boundaries of those past ideas that attempt to limit it.

It was my first glimpse at a 3 dimensional live reconstruction of a tumor growing in a petri dish. We had grown accustomed to seeing cancer through a microscope after it had been sectioned and placed on a glass slide. This process was not 2 dimensional at all. I pushed the 3D glasses closer to my eyes as I tried to understand what it was I was looking at. Marveling at what I guess I knew all along but had not seen it to believe.

This makes sense, of course it behaves this way, how else could it have behaved? It moves, it is not static, it is alive, and it evolves. It is intelligent. Even the scientist trying to explain it was searching for how to explain its unique nature.  I left the lab thinking to myself that the world is now round it is no longer flat. Was I now convinced that I should change how I think about this process?

I do not know how to share the beauty of a process that is too fascinating to ignore, its power lies in that which we cannot see.  It is unfortunate because it involves us, humans, and makes us suffer. I look back at my clinic today and all those affected by cancer who have to face it with courage. It is in the hidden complexity, the eclipse that takes our breath away, when what is not seen is revealed. Just like the moon that shields the rays upon the sun allowing us brief moments to contemplate what an amazing natural process this truly is.

Mo

Standard
Melanoma and Sarcoma, Patient Care, Perspectives

Orphaned.

Everyone in the room is quiet.  I feel like the old man leaning forward looking through my glasses understanding the situation but not fully. As an observer  I have seen it, can describe it but I am not experiencing it myself. No one in the room can appreciate that struggle. Three situations have made me think differently this week about cancer and what I do.  So lets navigate the spheres of care. The psychological, the spiritual, and the physical realms that humans use to perceive their surroundings.

I walk into a room and pull up a chair. I feel separated from my patient because of a new unfortunate event. I start to talk. The power of words, trying to reconnect and asking politely to let me back into their struggle. My patient said to me “Mo I can handle the pain but not the emotions of this struggle”. I acknowledge this. I do not underestimate it. Anxiety and depression makes a patient alone as if  orphaned by their diagnosis struggling at their core to make sense of things. The psychological scramble.

My patient sits across from me, my last one for the day I think to myself, going home soon, the day is done. Then out of the blue as I describe the cancer, I hear the words “Mo you talk about cancer very  spiritually.” Revelation. Taboo, should not talk to this person about this right now, no religion allowed. That’s the training. My indoctrination. But honest that was one of the best conversations I have ever had with someone with this disease.

Challenged. My patient stares at me but does not understand. Waves at me and smiles. That innocent oblivious smile. Someone else is making this decision for them. They are in pain and the people around perceive the situation but are unable to communicate it truly and fully. How can this paradox exist you might think? In a challenged intellect perhaps where explaining the physical does not help, words are of no use and an orphan appears.

Three unique situations. Each one with no real guidance on how to approach them. Am I the pioneer then? Don’t want to be. But clearly we have to start thinking of this disease as different and evolve more holistic approaches to help those who it encompasses.  Perhaps we have to explore it in places we dared not go before. Like orphans exploring parenthood for the first time.

Mo

Standard
Melanoma and Sarcoma, Patient Care, Perspectives

How?

“You got me this far” he told me. And then making it more difficult “I trust you” he added. Perhaps these should be easy words to hear and I should be proud that I was able to do something and be commended. But it’s the other words that linger “I trust you” he repeated. As I build my relationship with patients I become part of their successes, goals and their life. I am someone that they know, have shared their hardships and deepest thoughts. I am told that it is best to have barriers and not to get involved with them. I am told that I should find ways to separate me from them.

How?

To me this responsibility, this trust is crushing. It generally sends me reeling trying to make sense of the inevitability. Perhaps now I understand the spouse and her tears. How do I comfort? With my knowledge that has failed? With my compassion that I disguise?

But it does not end there; there is a question that I have loathed. “How long do I have?”

Is there a stamp with an expiry date? Perhaps I missed it in my examinations. That is what I say out loud, angrily perhaps? Do you say you did not climb Everest when you got only half way? When you stood at the bottom of the mountain and your first words were “I cannot do this?” Now that you are half way, what should I say about the journey so far? What about the goals we reached the times we shared? Just because I could not get you to the top what should I do? That is why my patients are amazing. It’s the first statement “you got me this far” that makes me heal.

It reverberates deeply in my mind. What strikes me down to my core beyond words that I feel do not understand.

How do I say goodbye?

Mo

Standard
Melanoma and Sarcoma

Cage.

It’s about a mile walk from my clinic to my office. A small part of that walk is outside. Grey was the sky, a cold wind penetrated my shirt but not enough for a jacket I thought. A light drizzle of rain. I guess this is the “Ambience” of this blog. I sighed deeply as I walked, the conversation of the day speaking inside me. I could feel each step, each bone in my body ached. And I walked distracted.

“I am sorry but your insurance will not accept me treating you on this clinical trial.”

Shell Shocked.

I did not go into medicine to be forbidden to treat someone with what I felt would be the best option for them. I imagined myself a rare bird stuck in a cage realizing the boundaries of the system that I existed in.  My wings unable to soar. My perceived freedom now defined by outward forces beyond my control. I felt the bars close in and force my decisions. A slave to the system that I have now discovered is not  easy to navigate. “This is all I have to treat you with”.  I did not even want to be in the room anymore as I spoke to this human. Where did my compassion go?  I longed for the freedom to decide the best treatment. I wanted to soar and my anger rattled me.  I flew into the bars wanting them to bend. I felt the imposition of the system. Where are the tools to help my patient today?  This is coming from someone who does not take “no” lightly.

I walked to my office, and talked to my boss. An incredible man to say the least. He let me talk. Like a cushion he absorbed this shock. This is not the first time that this has happened.

I have always liked the political cartoons of the past. They speak volumes in pictures. Intelligently portraying the issues of the time. I sat and read some of the “Far Side” cartoons on my couch. Humor a mature psychological defense mechanism like an old teacher showing the way.

Here is my picture for you- “Imagine”:

That despite this cage; this bird today sang.

I still found a way to deliver my care.

Mo

Standard
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

Standard
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

Standard
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.

1013276_536439236429575_2047326040_n

1208726_536439806429518_84655919_n

1236624_536931919713640_972321493_n

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.

1236693_671285279568045_1251525442_n

999447_670658372964069_1199244900_n

1146654_671285379568035_973649518_n

For more photos, visit our Melanoma Iowa Facebook page.

Standard
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

Standard
Melanoma and Sarcoma

Bounce.

“It’s a fine line between optimism and pessimism” he said to me, and I looked at him staring blankly. We talked about how it’s so easy to see things with a half empty glass and how the pressures around us sometimes dictate how we view life as it pertains to our practices and the decisions we face.  It could be as Nicholas Taleb would see it, that there really is no glass, but it’s how we in the end decide to see.

It’s been that kind of day.  Bounce.  Like a ball.  I have to have the spring to go from one patient to the other. “Your scans look great” ……….”I am sorry I have some bad news”. Not much more to say when the scans are good; good news brings a few laughs and off they go- anxieties abated until the next scans.  Bad news brings much more discussion, “is there hope? can we beat this?” Like the ball, I am elastic ready for both situations; the good news helping me spring back from the collision of the bad news. I think I am answering the question I am sometimes asked when my patients say “how do you do it?”

I have sat alone in a doctor’s office in silence waiting to be seen. That silence is unbearable. And all I needed that day was an injection into my shoulder. I dislike making patients  wait to hear good news. I yell out loud “yes!” after looking at a scan, springing out of my chair like a kid to get to the person who gets that good news. It’s amazing to watch relief. I have gotten good at reading the faces of my patients.

Bad News. I stare at the scan disbelieving. A meticulous and wise mind takes over, filled with understanding of the greater mysteries of life that the science I know helps me unravel. I sometimes find myself thinking about my own mortality, my heart is heavy, but this when the person waiting really needs me. They do not need me to feel sorry, they need me sharp, ready to navigate and able to get them through this. Like a pilot in a bad storm, as a passenger who knows nothing about flying, I hear myself saying “he better land this plane”.

I want nothing more than to deliver good news to every room I walk into. Reality says differently. I find myself thinking today mostly about the bad news I delivered, not as a sympathetic person but as a physician needing to find the answer to help land the plane, weighing all the odds and stretching my mind to figure this out. Perhaps the answer lies in tomorrow. I have to believe there is an answer out there, that some day while sitting listening to a researcher present his work or explain a phenomenon that there is enough talent in the room to figure this out.

I bounce in and out of rooms, between today and tomorrow, between discovery and a dead end.

Mo

Standard
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

 

 

 

Standard
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

Standard
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

 

 

Standard
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

DSC01801

Nancy and Jay White 1

DSC01808

Standard