Monday, December 27, 2010

December 27, 2010 - Putting the "Death Panel" Myth to Rest

A New York Times article published on Christmas Day reports the good news that sanity has finally prevailed in the halls of government, as further regulations connected with the landmark healthcare-reform legislation enable Medicare funding for advanced end-of-life planning.

This news comes - to my mind, anyway - with a particular sense of relief. Opponents of healthcare reform have cynically and cruelly exploited dying people for their own political gain, by raising up the myth of government "death panels." According to that improbable scenario, government bureaucrats would have played a role akin to that of the infamous Dr. Mengele at the Auschwitz concentration camp (he was the camp physician who decided, with a wave of his baton, which new prisoners would go to the barracks and which would be sent directly to the gas chambers).

What the original legislation, in fact, provided was money to pay for annual doctor's office visits - for those critically-ill patients who want them - at which the various options for end-of-life care would be explained. One significant option is hospice - the part of the medical community in which Claire works, providing bereavement counseling and support.

The recent news is that the Obama administration has quietly restored this funding - not through legislation this time, but through regulation-writing (it had been in the original bill, but was pulled out in reaction to the "death panel" kerfuffle).

I'm especially glad to see this funding restored because of situations I've seen arise time and again in my ministry (and which Claire sees much more often in hers). Far too often, patients avoid having the hospice discussion with their doctors and family members until death is imminent and it's too late for them to derive much benefit from hospice care. When patients' time on the program is measured in hours rather than days, there's not a lot the hospice team can do for them.

Hospice care is not intended to be delivered in such an accelerated time frame. Yes, it's designed for patients who are expected to live fewer than six months, but a lot can be accomplished in that period of time, improving significantly patients' comfort and quality of life.

Talking about hospice is NOT giving up on patients. Quite the contrary, it's about empowering seriously ill patients to live the remaining portion of their lives as they wish. If patients and their families decide to continue aggressive treatment, so be it. If they opt, instead, to go home to a hospital bed in the living room, with advanced pain control and unlimited visits from their grandchildren, then that's their decision and it ought to be respected.

Irrational fear of "death panels" has kept people off hospice care who should have been receiving it much sooner - and would very much have wanted it, had they understood the patient-centered philosophy behind it. This restored funding will allow doctors to plan significant time for consultations that will equip patients and family members to make their own, carefully considered decisions about backing off from aggressive treatment and focusing more on palliative care.

Time and again, I've heard bereaved family members say they wish their loved one had signed onto hospice earlier, but they just didn't have a sense of what hospice is all about until it was nearly too late.

Chalk this one up as a triumph for patients' rights: to make their own, well-informed healthcare choices.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

December 23, 2010 - A Champion Gift-Giver

There's lots of talk, this time of year, about gifts and gift-giving, but here's a gift-giving story that will warm your heart. It comes from the sports pages, of all places.

Matt Hoffman is a defensive end for the Rowan University football team, here in New Jersey. Recently he was one of three runners-up for the Gagliardi Trophy, which is given to the most outstanding football player in Division III of the NCAA. It's that Division's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

Matt had put himself on the National Bone Marrow Registry's list of potential stem-cell donors some time back. Last November, his number came up. Matt's blood chemistry, it seemed, was a good match for a non-Hodgkin lymphoma patient, a stranger to him, who urgently needed to undergo the transplant procedure.

The only problem was, for Matt to say yes to the request to donate meant he would have to take some powerful medicines, whose side effects would prevent him from playing in the final football game of his Junior-Year season.

The voting for prestigious sports awards like the Gagliardi Trophy is heavily dependent upon statistics. For an outstanding player like Matt Hoffman to miss even a single game is a really big deal. It can mean the difference between being the trophy recipient and being the runner-up (as Matt turned out to be).

Matt didn't hesitate. He told his coach he couldn't play that day, because he had to go into the hospital to donate stem cells. For a stranger.

A few weeks ago - in the moments before the Gagliardi Trophy awards ceremony - Matt had the opportunity to meet the man who received his stem cells. The National Bone Marrow Registry puts a one-year moratorium on sharing the names of recipients, but after that year had elapsed - and with the consent of both parties - they brought the two men together. Matt had the opportunity to meet Warren Sallach, a 59-year-old road maintenance worker from Texas, who continues to be in full remission more than a year after receiving his stem cells.

It was an emotional occasion for both of them. Matt called it "one of the best moments of my life."

I'd be hard-pressed to think of a better gift-giving story than that. Matt Hoffman may be a runner-up for the Gagliardi Trophy, but he comes in first for an even more prestigious trophy, in my book.

Merry Christmas, one and all!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why I Do It

Sometimes I wonder why I write this blog - why I started it in the first place; why I kept it up during some very difficult days, when I hardly felt up to it; why I keep doing it, more than 5 years after my diagnosis and more than 4 years into watch-and-wait so-called "treatment."

An answer has turned up in Britain's Guardian newspaper, as a psychologist speculates on why people write illness blogs. Here, a fellow cancer blogger, Sue Eckstein, quotes Dr. Tom Farsides:

"I'm just one of many hundreds of people who blog about their illness or trauma, and, according to Dr Tom Farsides of Sussex University, this is not surprising: 'Writing is an effective way of processing and coming to terms with challenging and potentially traumatic events,' he says. 'But blogging is more than the mere act of writing. It also fosters senses of both control and social connection, each of which is crucial for psychological wellbeing.'"

Oh, yeah. That's why.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

December 7, 2010 – Remembering Elizabeth

Sad news, this evening, of the death of Elizabeth Edwards. Evidently, in the end it happened very quickly for her, which is a mercy.

The “late unpleasantness” of her husband’s irresponsible behavior has dominated the headlines in the past year or so, and many of us were very sorry to see that burden added to those Elizabeth was already carrying. It speaks to the strength of her character that, through faith and sheer determination, she somehow found the inner strength to be there for her family, to face the television cameras with her head held high and to continue to use her celebrity status to exercise compassion for others.

Her books, in which she candidly shared her life story, have been an inspiration.

Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, himself a lymphoma survivor, shared a frank exchange he had with Elizabeth about her Christian faith, and the doubts she sometimes experienced, about both her cancer and the tragic, accidental death of her son, Wade:

“When I arrived, Elizabeth told me that cancer had essentially freed her to say whatever the hell she wanted. Then she proved it, by questioning the one thing all presidential candidates and their spouses must embrace - religious faith: ‘I’m not praying for God to save me from cancer. God will enlighten me when the time comes. And if I’ve done the right thing, I will be enlightened. And if I believe, I’ll be saved. And that’s all he promises me.’ But did she believe? Here she went further than any public figure this side of Christopher Hitchens.

‘I had to think about a God who would not save my son. Wade was – and I have lots of evidence; it's not just his mother saying it – a gentle and good boy. He reached out to people who were misfits and outcasts all the time. He could not stand for people to say nasty things about other people; he just didn’t want it. For a 16-year-old boy, he was really extraordinary in this regard. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t. You’d think that if God was going to protect somebody, he’d protect that boy. But not only did he not protect him, the wind blew him from the road. The hand of God blew him from the road. So I had to think, ‘What kind of God do I have that doesn’t intervene - in fact, may even participate - in the death of this good boy?”

That’s so like Elizabeth Edwards. She always told it like it is. Unlike so many people in public life who live elegantly fabricated lives, she was real.

Elizabeth will be well-remembered by those of us in the cancer community as a determined survivor, an encourager of others, an activist for change - and yes, a woman of faith. Let us offer prayers of thanksgiving for her life and witness.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

December 2, 2010 – 5-Year Cancerversary

Hard to believe it’s been five years already, but it has. Five years ago today, I was diagnosed with cancer.

So much has happened since then. Those early days of uncertainty and fear, knowing that life would never be the same again. Telling the kids. Telling the church. Arranging for time off, to coincide with the predictable valleys in the chemo cycle. Persistent thoughts of dying, even though Drs. Lerner and Portlock and everyone else in the know kept assuring me I have one of those so-called "good" cancers - one that usually responds to treatment.

Once the treatment train had left the station, it picked up speed incredibly fast – or so it seemed. One day, I was given the news. The next, I was being wheeled into an operating room to get my port implanted.

My story didn’t unfold quite that fast, of course. That was just the way it felt to me. There was actually about a month between diagnosis and my first dose of chemo. I can’t recall much of what I did during that time. Once cancer enters your life, it’s hard to think of anything else. I felt numb.

Used to be, patients who reached their five year cancerversary without recurrence were considered cured. I still run into people who think that’s the case. In reality, cancer is such a multifaceted phenomenon that it’s impossible to generalize.

In my case, remission only lasted eight months – although, in truth, the cancer was probably there all along, lurking below the radar of those high-tech scans. “Watch and wait” was Dr. Lerner’s recommendation, confirmed by Dr. Portlock. Just sit tight. No need to shoot any arrows from the quiver until we absolutely have to. You have no symptoms. So, just sit tight. Trust us. This really is a sensible approach, even though it sounds like lunacy.

So, here I am today. Still watching and waiting. I’ve no idea how long it will be before the burgeoning population of cancer cells will reach umpteen million (or whatever the magic number is) and we’ll be discussing which treatment to try next.

Already, there are NHL treatments out there that weren’t available at the time I was diagnosed. Most aren’t quite ready for prime time, but it won’t be long now. Chances are, by the time we’ll be thinking seriously about treatment again, there will be some options available that weren’t even conceived at the time I was first setting out, five years ago.

There’s reason for hope, to be sure. Lord willing and the blood counts don’t rise, I’ll be here to observe quite a number of cancerversaries yet to come.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

November 18, 2010 – Help! I’m a Market Segment

I ran across this link recently, describing a subscription newsletter issued by a financial-information firm, communicating the latest news and statistics on “the global NHL market.”

Yes, that’s right. The “NHL” in “NHL market” refers to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. There are actually financial analysts out there who make it their business to study the strength of companies developing drugs and other therapies to treat NHL.

We all know that health care in this country is profit-driven, but this displays the seamy underside of that reality. Some of these technological developments tracked by this service represent life and death for people like me. We follow this information in order to stay as healthy as we possibly can. Subscribers to this newsletter follow the same information in order to make a buck. Lots of bucks, actually.

I read this stuff and I end up feeling vaguely dirty, for no particular reason. How does it strike the rest of you, especially folks who are dealing with cancer?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

November 7, 2010 – Gratitude on the Radiation Table

Paul Bresnahan is an Episcopal priest who served with me on the writing team for the internet sermon resource, The Immediate Word, back when I was working as the team’s convener. Recently I came across a blog post of his, reflecting on his own cancer experience. Here's an excerpt:

“Prostate cancer struck me well over a year ago, and I have been living with Jesus as I always have and then journeyed through surgery and now radiation. God has given me the privilege of sharing my journey with others who gather with me in the waiting room at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. We share our joys and sorrows, our hopes and our fears, our aches and our pains.

We cheer one another along. Last week when I was called for a radiation treatment, I quipped: ‘My turn to shine.’ My companion for the day told me that the entire waiting room erupted in laughter as I left the room. ‘Who is that man?’ several asked. ‘He is my parish priest,’ was the proud answer. And thus the witness to Jesus' love and healing touch tickled those within the Cox Center for Cancer Treatment at one of the world's great hospitals.

Inside the treatment facility, as I lay on the table with a giant metal fork rotating around me and beaming its rays within my body, I saw the hand of God and sensed a healing touch within me. I saw no vision other than the hand of science and medicine ministering to me out of the gifts God so generously bestows upon the care giving community in my home city. The beaming rays of radiation give me the gift of healing and of life, and I am brim full of gratitude.”

It’s so true that the eye of faith can sometimes glimpse the hand of God in all kinds of things. Even a piece of radiation therapy equipment.

Friday, October 29, 2010

October 29, 2010 – On Meeting Oneself

Yesterday, my 54th birthday, I caught a National Public Radio interview on the car radio with singer/ songwriter Sheryl Crow. Amidst the usual light chat about music, songwriting and the like, the interviewer asked Sheryl about her experience as a breast cancer survivor. She had this to say:

“Once I was diagnosed, once I was handed that diagnosis, it was very apparent to me that my life was never going to look or feel the same to me again. And... my lesson... in my diagnosis and laying on the radiation table every single morning for seven weeks was, nobody can take care of me but me. And I wasn't doing that. I was putting everybody's needs before me and, so it was really, you know, I met myself on that radiation table every day and I had to reflect and had to remember who it was I came in as, and had to really sort of redefine my life.”

The line that jumped out at me at the time was: “I met myself on that radiation table every day.”

That sort of thing is part of the cancer experience, especially during treatment. The diagnosis crashes in, like a bolt out of the blue. The normal, everyday activities of life come to a screeching halt. Suddenly, it’s just you, your medical team and your treatment.

Mostly you, though. And a whole lot of time.

You have time to think. To reflect. To reconsider. You may not feel real great, and that may keep you from doing some of the activities most of us usually fall back on, to keep busy and avoid introspection – reading, media, computer. The thoughts flow wild and free. No scenario’s left unturned, when it comes to imagining the worst possible outcomes.

Somehow, out of that chaotic mix there arises a new synthesis. The new normal. We haven’t chosen it, but there it is. At the end of the day, it’s our normal, so we’ll take it. It beats the alternative.

I hear you, Sheryl. What you say is so true.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

October 10, 2010 - A Doctor Who Gets It

Betsy de Parry, a lymphoma survivor and blogger whom I frequently cite in these pages, has published a truly remarkable letter from an oncologist and specialist in rare adrenal cancers, Dr. Gary Hammer. It’s an open letter he wrote to cancer survivors everywhere, in response to an open letter to doctors Betsy had written a few days before.

Dr. Hammer notes in his letter that virtually all his patients die under his care. That’s because the prognosis for adrenal cancers is generally poor. The best he can promise his patients is to buy them a little time, and to enlist them as allies as he and his colleagues chip away at the frustrating search for a cure.

It takes a very special doctor to persevere in medical practice under such circumstances. At the very least, a “thick skin” would seem to be an emotional necessity – surely, not easy to maintain alongside a pleasing bedside manner. (I have a feeling, though, after reading his letter, that Dr. Hammer is one of those rare individuals who can integrate both.) The type of medicine he practices also affords him a rather remarkable vantage-point from which to view the experience of patients living through their last days.

Both letters are worth reading in their entirety, but I’d like to share with you, here, a selection from Dr. Hammer’s. It shows he’s truly been listening to his patients, in the deepest sense:

“Perhaps the most frightening words a person might hear in his or her lifetime are ‘You have cancer.’ This truth revealed fractures our reality. It challenges our relationship to our inner world, forcing us to re-evaluate who we are.

However, embedded within this experience lived is a gift. The little-known secret is that the gift is not just for the afflicted but also for their entire circle of relationships, including spouse, children, friend and caregiver alike. The only requirements to receive this unique communion: vulnerability and presence.

As a physician engaged in the care of people with a particular rare cancer – where those under my care almost always die – I am thankful for the sharing of truths that have been unveiled to me by these men and women in this, their most vulnerable and internal sanctuary.

In this place of finding themselves dying, brave people have let me into their space where three truths seem to be unveiled again and again as defining gifts of sacredness. These truths can be embraced as three reflections of the word ‘presence:’ conscious engagement, the experience of present time (the razor-sharp now) and the gift of emotional authenticity.

Through these patients, I have come to an understanding that if we are fortunate to actually have time while we are ill, and we are brave enough, what happens as our vanity, our beauty and ultimately our physical identity is stripped away is that we are granted a chance to become our own sacredness — as it becomes all that is left.

Sadly, when people die suddenly, they rarely have the luxury of such time, such a place. But equally as tragic is that most folks never risk to venture to this vulnerable place while living when they do have time. Having our own death close by in life — be it through illness or conscious reflection — sharpens our internal lens by stripping away all that is not present, all that is not presence.”

Based on my experience, I’d say that having a deadly cancer is something like getting off the local train that is the normal pace of life and boarding another. The new conveyance is a bullet train that bears us on rapidly, roaring through many of the normal stages of adult development without stopping, to a windswept, elevated platform overlooking a barren plain – the place where we may contemplate our own death. It’s the terminus, the end of that particular line, a station most people will never glimpse until they are far advanced in years, if at all (those who die suddenly may never see it). We who have wrestled with the cancer angel are familiar with that stark vista, and also know how bewildering this headlong, high-speed journey can be.

Even more bewildering is the return trip. It happens in the flash of an eye. If we’re fortunate enough to see our disease go into remission – or to enter into the extended watch-and-wait “treatment” that’s really a non-treatment – we may suddenly find ourselves seated again on the lurching local milk-run. Around us are our fellow-passengers, snoozing away to the soft, rocking motion of the train. We look around the cabin and at first see only others who are sleeping.

But wait, over there, across the aisle: was that a movement? It was. Another person awake. She and I make fleeting eye contact. Yes. It’s someone else who was on the express, someone who knows.

And what’s that, several rows ahead? Someone else is stirring. A passenger yawns and stretches before he turns around, idly scanning the passenger compartment. He gives me a brief nod of recognition before laying his head back down on the shoulder of his sleeping wife, trying (perhaps in vain) to join her in slumber. Another fellow-traveler. When he closes his eyes, does the stark vision of that empty, elevated platform, surrounded by barren, moonlit prairie, rise up in his imagination?

It’s a wonderful thing to encounter a physician who’s taken the time to know his patients in such an existential way, to try to vicariously experience something of what we’ve been through.

Blessings to you, Dr. Hammer. May your tribe increase. And “thank you” to Betsy for initiating this fruitful exchange.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

October 9, 2010 - Comic Relief from The Onion

OK, this one's a bit out of the ordinary for my blog, but I can't resist posting a link to this "news" story from The Onion, the internet satirical newspaper. It's called "Teen With Cancer Vows It Won't Keep Her From Being Mean, Moody Little S**t."

(Sorry for the profanity, both in the headline and in the article, but you'll see how it makes literary sense in this case.)

The article gave me a good chuckle, but it also points out how we who have cancer are who we are. The disease strikes randomly, without regard to personal virtue (or lack thereof).

It's also a sly send-up of all the adulatory talk that goes on about people with cancer. When you get the disease, you find that people are a little more inclined than usual to say complimentary things about you.

Was anyone ever lauded for approaching their so-called "battle" with cancer like a total weenie? I'm sure many have taken precisely that approach. But they never say anything about that when they're hanging the medal around your neck at the Relay For Life.

Don't get me wrong. Cancer can be transformative. I believe it has been in my case, and mostly for the better (although - true confessions time - four and a half years later, I could stand to ditch the procrastinating, devil-may-care approach to personal financial management that I fell into during my chemo-treatment days).

For all the times we survivors may joke about "playing the cancer card," the diagnosis doesn't give us a free pass for treating others with disrespect.

I suppose the experience of dealing with cancer does lead some of us to rethink, maybe even reform, our lives. Others, maybe less so.

Are we somehow obliged to approach our disease like the opportunity for transformation it just may turn out to be? I don't think so. It's an individual thing.

We all do well to try to avoid judging others in that regard. Those who want to take the weenie approach have every right to do so. And they probably still deserve a medal around their neck.

Deep down, I'm enough of a Calvinist to believe that we're all sinners, and that chemo and radiation have little effect on that particular malady.

That cure lies elsewhere.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

October 5, 2010 - This Is the Day

This excerpt from a Presbyterian News Service release tells the story of the death several days ago of singer/songwriter David M. Bailey:

"David M. Bailey, a singer/songwriter who moved audiences as much with his story of personal courage in the face of terminal cancer as with his music, succumbed to Glioblastoma on Oct. 2 in hospice care near his home in Charlottesville, Va. He was 44.

The son of Presbyterian missionaries, Kenneth E. and Ethel Bailey, Bailey was raised in Beirut, Lebanon. He spent some of his youth in Germany — where he learned to play the guitar and began writing songs — before returning to the United States....

In July 1996, he was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, a particularly virulent form of brain cancer. He then quit his corporate job and turned to songwriting and performing full-time.

'They told me I had six months. They were wrong,' Bailey said. 'Despite what you might hear, hope is a very real thing, and with every passing day, there are more and more reasons to hope.'

For 14 years he defied that diagnosis, writing and performing virtually non-stop, covering 45 states and 21 countries. His concerts were deeply personal, brutally honest accounts — rendered in a musical style that has been compared to James Taylor and Cat Stevens — of his struggles with his illness and his determination to make the most of whatever time God gave him.

His signature tune was 'One More Day.' The chorus goes:

'One more day when you can hold your children
One more day you can hold your wife
One more day when you can watch the grass grow
One more day when you can live your life.'"

It calls to mind the familiar scripture verse: "This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it." (Psalm 118:24)

It's a lesson David taught us: how to live in the now, praising God for all good gifts. His music - and that lesson - will live on, through his recordings.

Prayers and good wishes go out to his family.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

September 29, 2010 - Watch Those Cancer Cells Get Zapped

Thanks to Betsy de Parry for posting a link on Facebook to an animated slide show about how targeted therapies (like Rituxan, the drug I received) first locate, then take out, cancer cells.

It's on the website of the National Cancer Institute. The presentation is in a lot of different segments. You need to click on the links in the menu to the right to move on to the next one.

It's nice to see those cancer cells getting zapped, even if it's only an animation!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

September 15, 2010 - WLAD

Just what I need - another acronym in my life!

(Just kidding.) Actually, I'm glad to talk about this particular one. WLAD stands for World Lymphoma Awareness Day, which happens to be today.

And to think I almost missed it!

Not that it's any great celebration. It's just one of those education-and-p.r. vehicles, beloved of medical educators and professional fund-raisers.

There's clearly a need for it, though, because of statistics like these:

* Less than 50 per cent of people know anything about lymphoma, despite the fact that it's the 5th most common cancer, worldwide.

* Almost three quarters (74 per cent) of people don't even know that lymphoma is a form of cancer.

Check out the "Know Your Nodes" online mini-quiz, if you haven't already.

It's hard, sometimes, for survivors like me to explain lymphoma to others. It's a cancer, yes, but as a systemic (rather than localized) cancer, it can be hard for people to understand why the doctors can't just go in there with a scalpel and cut the bad stuff out.

It's also not influenced by any causal factors, like smoking or poor diet or exposure to environmental toxins (at least, not any cause that researchers have been able to puzzle out).

Apart from the occasional swollen lymph node protruding from the base of the neck or maybe in the armpit, if there are symptoms, they're invisible to most casual observers. Lots of people with lymphoma don't LOOK sick - except when they're getting chemo treatments, which can make them look a lot sicker than their disease ever did.

There are a lot of us around the world who have it, though, and it IS life-threatening (although, thankfully, we've got a whole lot of effective treatments that can keep it at bay for a very long time, even if some forms of it can't be cured).

So, Happy WLAD, everyone.

Be aware. Be VERY aware.

And do enjoy what's left of this beautiful fall day!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11, 2010 - 9/11 Every 2 Days

That's the title of an article by Betsy DeParry, whom I've come to know a bit through the online lymphoma community, and through reading her cancer memoir, The Roller Coaster Chronicles. What she's referring to is a well-publicized statistic that 1,500 people die every day from cancer in this country. Approximately 3,000 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks, which means cancer brings about another 9/11 every couple of days.

Cancer doesn't garner the same level of response - and understandably so, from a psychological standpoint. The 9/11 attacks were sudden, brutal, inhuman - and completely unexpected for most Americans. They turned life in our country on its head, and we're still living through a lot of the aftermath.

We're wrapping up one war and still deeply embroiled in another. After conducting those wars in a way our nation has never prosecuted a war before - essentially putting the costs on a credit card, neither raising taxes nor asking for financial sacrifice from the general public - our economy is in a shambles.

More than that, a lot of us are living with a level of fear and anxiety we've never known before. The contentious, fear-driven debate over the construction of the Park 51 Muslim community center in lower Manhattan - not to mention the media's hysterical response to the bigoted wing-nut minister who wanted to hold a Qu'ran-burning party - is ample evidence of that.

I understand the Federal budget is so loaded down, now, with expenses for national security - and those programs are being administered by such a vast, disconnected profusion of agencies, funded in some cases by money from secret budgets - that no one really knows exactly how much we're spending, nor for what.

Betsy doesn't make any observations like these in her article - they're my own, and I'll claim them - but she does recall how, ironically, it was on the anniversary of 9/11 several years back that she received the single radioimmunotherapy (RIT) treatment that has kept her cancer-free ever since. For her, personally, 9/11 is a day of celebration.

That, of course, is an ambiguous legacy, as she herself reflects:

"Yet eight years after winning FDA approval, the two RIT drugs are still caught in the health system's for profit stranglehold that has limited access to between 5 and 10 percent of the patients who might benefit from them. That's like sending the finest emergency crews and state-of-the-art equipment to rescue 5 to 10 percent of the victims of any tragedy and sending the bucket brigade to help the rest. Wouldn't we all be outraged? Just as maddening, targeted therapies like RIT have been hailed as the future of cancer care, but interest in developing RIT drugs for other types of cancer has waned because the RIT drugs for lymphoma have not been commercially successful.

Cancer claims 1,500 Americans every day. That's 9/11 every two days. And it's simply unacceptable, especially when lifesaving treatments like RIT are available for some.

Yes, I'm grateful that eight years ago today, RIT restored my health and kept my family whole, but my celebration is tempered with respect for the families who lost loved ones on that tragic morning a year before RIT rescued me. And my individual triumph over cancer is overshadowed by sorrow for the families who will suffer so long as profit takes precedence over people."

Are we really saving lives with all the wild spending on domestic-security programs and research into arcane military technologies, many of which may never see the light of day on a battlefield? No one can say. Yet, it's far more certain that the money we're NOT spending, as a nation, on delivering health-care technologies we've already developed and tested to sick people who truly need them is causing more deaths than any terrorist attack ever did.

On 9/11, let us honor the memory of those who have died, and the pain of those who miss their loved ones still. Yet, let us also redouble our efforts at bringing life and health to those who can still be saved.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

September 9, 2010 - Defensive Medicine

The headline reads, "Cost of Medical Malpractice Tops $55 Billion a Year in U.S." But it's misleading.

It's not the cost of malpractice that's the problem. It's the cost of the medical world's hyper-defensiveness in trying to stave off lawsuits.

The troubling figure, according to a recent, comprehensive study described in the article, is: 2.4.

That's 2.4 per cent of annual healthcare spending that's related to malpractice, including medical practitioners defending themselves against potential lawsuits.

Think of it - you write a check to your doctor for a $35 copay. No matter how expert your doctor is, no matter how meticulous he or she may be about leaving no medical stone unturned in diagnosis or treatment, 84 cents of what you're paying that day goes to cover the cost of other doctors who aren't so good at what they do.

Multiply that by every check written to every doctor and hospital around the country, and we're talking some really big money.

It's not so much the bad doctors out there who are the problem. Their numbers are very small. It's our fear of them that's the problem. It's a fear that leads even the best doctors to shell out big bucks for malpractice insurance, and that causes us to pay big bucks for marginally necessary tests.

They call it "defensive medicine," and it's costly indeed.

I hope the medical reform now working its way through our government includes some measures to reduce the adverse impact of this largely unreasoned fear.

It's a lot of money. It's not the whole answer to runaway medical costs in this country, by any means, but it's significant.

Monday, September 06, 2010

September 6, 2010 - His Music Lives On

In some earlier posts, I've written about a musician, David M. Bailey, who's been an inspiration to me. David's a brain cancer survivor who, after undergoing treatment the first time, reinvented his life as a singer-songwriter. Except for the times when he's been undergoing further treatment, he's been traveling the country, sharing his musical message of faith, hope and love in the midst of adversity.

Today, I received this e-mail, sent out to those on David's mailing list, presumably by a friend or relative:

"David was moved to hospice on Friday, September 3, following nearly a week in the hospital. He has been surrounded by family, friends and loving caregivers and has been pretty comfortable.

There’s a day to be filled with music
and a day for all melody to cease
there’s a day to arm yourself for battle
and a day to calm your heart for peace"

dmb 1996

Back in the 1990s, they told David his glioblastoma brain tumor was supposed to have killed him in 6 months. He beat the odds, obviously, by a considerable amount of time. Now that it appears his final days are upon him, let's remember him in prayer, asking God for comfort and expressing gratitude for his remarkable witness of faith.

I regret that I never got to hear David perform live. I do cherish those of his CDs I own, though, and I know many others do, too.

There may be a day for "all melody to cease," but it will only be for the briefest time. David's music will live on.

"Well done, good and faithful servant."

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

August 31, 2010 - Creativity and Cancer Survivorship

Today I run across this little gem, an edited-down version of a talk by Monty Python member John Cleese on the subject of creativity:

Cleese may sound like an odd choice, at first, to give this sort of talk, but in fact - alongside the brilliant loopiness of his television and film projects - he’s long had interests in being a serious academic. For a while he was Rector of the University of St. Andrews, where I did my Ph.D. (alas, just before my time there, so I never met him). He transformed the Rectorship - until then, a largely honorific, student-chosen position - into one that engaged with the University administration on a number of issues of importance to students.

The advice Cleese gives here is down-to-earth and practical: especially what he says about the importance of “sleeping on” a problem, and also of constructing boundaries of space and time for regular, serious reflection.

Running his remarks through my theological filters, I’m struck by how many times he dances right up to the line of saying something spiritual, but never quite steps over it. (No surprise there, because he doesn't believe in God.) For example, when he attributes creative breakthroughs to the work of “the unconscious,” he could have said “the Holy Spirit” - but doesn’t. When he’s talking about the need to carve out time for focused pondering, he could have said “quiet time for prayer and contemplation” - but doesn’t. Certain parts of the Christian spiritual tradition, such as monasticism, insist on a daily schedule (the liturgical hours) that’s meant to nurture precisely the sort of creative engagement Cleese is calling for, and have produced some wonderfully creative people (ranging from Thomas Merton to Dan Berrigan to Sister Wendy of the art-appreciation videos). We Protestants may be a bit behind the curve on that one, but even we have traditions of spiritual practices that foster creativity and holy insight.

So, what does all this have to do with cancer survivorship? Cleese doesn't mention any connection, but I was led to reflect on something many of us survivors have experienced: how the enforced down-time of a chemotherapy regimen crashed into our otherwise busy, over-committed lives and forced us to spend time reflecting on things we’d otherwise never have thought about (or perhaps not until some long-postponed retirement - and maybe not even then, judging from what I’ve heard from some retired people who report being busier now than when they were working).

It was during the enforced down-time of my chemotherapy, for example, that this blog was born. Since having that experience, I haven’t even needed to try to schedule time for creative reflection. I’ve simply done it (at times to the detriment of some of my more routine obligations, but what’s a credit-card late fee or two, if you’re staying more spiritually grounded as a result of obsessing less over the small stuff?).

Whatever stage of the survivorship journey we’re in - whether in treatment, in remission, in relapse, or in that blessed land some are bold to call “cancer-free” - it helps to let go of the urgent worries from time to time and put them to rest for a while, even if only for the few hours of a good night’s sleep (if that’s possible, health-wise). It also helps to set up those boundaries Cleese is talking about, so we can grab a little time for ourselves, away from the frenetic rounds travel to one medical establishment to another, and trying to respond to some of the demands of our normal lives when we’re not doing that.

Stephen Covey, in a memorable illustration I’ve referred to earlier in this blog, called it “sharpening the saw.” If you don’t stop your ceaseless sawing - back and forth, back and forth - from time to time, and pause to sharpen the saw-blade, you’re doomed to steadily decreasing effectiveness.

So, let’s hear it for self-care, on the cancer-survivorship journey! A major part of self-care is refreshing ourselves at those creative wells, where our spirit is free to engage with the Spirit of the Lord.

Friday, August 27, 2010

August 27, 2010: Cancer-Fighting's New Cocktail Party

An article in Business Week, "Cocktails Are Next For Cancer-Drug Makers," highlights what its author calls a new development in cancer treatment. Comparing newly-developed cancer drug combinations to the drug cocktails that have been successful in treating HIV/AIDS, the author says:

"For more than a decade, cancer researchers have been crafting drugs to disrupt the precise cellular processes that fuel cancer, creating a $51 billion market in 2009. So far, the survival benefits have been measured in months, not years. That's because cancer, like the virus that causes AIDS, evolves rapidly to evade a single treatment. Rather than mixing and matching approved drugs, researchers are developing new, targeted combinations that work in tandem to block cancer.

'We're looking to see a radical change in terms of stopping the disease in its tracks,' says Tal Zaks, head of global oncology drug development at Sanofi in Paris. 'The return on investment here is not going to be just evolutionary; it has the potential to be revolutionary.'"

I don't get it. What's so new about chemo cocktails? I got R-CHOP (Rituximab, Cyclophosphamide, Doxorubicin, Vincristine and Prednisone) five years ago. Isn't that a targeted drug cocktail?

R-CHOP is concocted of three chemo agents and a steroid, linked up with Rituximab, a monoclonal antibody that does the targeting.

How is this different from what the Business Week article is talking about? Can anyone enlighten me?

Monday, August 23, 2010

August 23, 2010 – What the Biograph Knows

Last Tuesday, I went for a PET/CT scan. This is perfectly routine: I get scans at intervals, alternating between the PET/CT and a regular CT scan with contrast. It’s how Dr. Lerner and I figure out if we’re still watching and waiting, or if it’s time to take a more proactive stance.

A year or so ago, the testing interval was every 3 months. Now, the doctor has spread the schedule out to every 6 months. That’s because my lymphoma has been so lackadaisical of late – a good sign.

The scanner lives on the back of a tractor-trailer truck pulled up to a loading dock at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. It’s there a couple days a week. What hospitals it visits the other days of the week, I’m not sure.

Here’s what I recall of the experience...

I’ve been through this enough times to know exactly what to expect. Pin-prick on the finger-tip, for the instant blood test to make sure I’m not diabetic. IV needle inserted in the crook of the arm, into which the technician injects a hypodermic-full of liquid out of a thick, cylindrical, silvery-metal case (that’s lead casing, to protect the technician from the radioactive glucose solution I get to have coursing through my bloodstream for the next several hours – lucky me). The IV needle comes out right after that, then it’s 45 minutes’ R&R in a comfy lounge chair. During that time I’m instructed to sit quietly, even nap if I want. Only then am I ready for the scan.

That entails lying flat on my back, perfectly motionless, for 30-45 minutes, arms extended straight back over my head. I know from experience how the muscle-pain that develops in my arms, after 20 minutes or so of this unnatural posture, is the worst part.

Just before climbing onto the narrow table that will slide me through the machine’s donut-hole, I notice an inscription on the device: “SIEMENS Biograph 6.”

The manufacturer, of course, is Siemens, the medical-equipment giant. Biograph 6 is evidently the model name and number.

Ya gotta think of something while you’re lying on your back, trying to keep from counting the minutes, so I start musing on that word, “Biograph.” Obviously, it’s a trade name dreamed up by the Siemens marketing people. “Bio” means life, and “graph” means writing. Put the two together and the name suggests a chartful of medical data – which is, essentially, what this high-tech test produces. Makes good marketing sense.

It also calls to mind, of course, the word “biography.” Coincidentally, during the 45-minute rest period before my scan, I started reading a biography: The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, by Debby Applegate. Her book’s a fine example of the genre: a collection of facts about the famous preacher’s life, but also so much more than mere facts. The facts are presented so as to conjure up the real person, as though he could step right off the page.

That’s what a good biography does. Yet, I wonder as I lie there: What is it that a good Biograph does?

I suppose the thing that’s most important to the medical community is the way its visioning software slices and dices my body into thousands of paper-thin segments, which it then analyzes, looking for the rapidly-metabolizing tissue indicating a possible malignancy. (I don’t feel a thing while all this high-tech butchery is going on, by the way. Except for the pain from my hyper-extended upper arms, I could probably fall asleep there inside the donut-hole.)

Likewise, a biographer like Debby Applegate gathers and arranges a whole lot of facts about her subject’s life – scanning it, as it were – before sitting down at her word processor. Once she starts to write, though, her goal is not to simply pour out the unedited facts, performing the historical equivalent of a data-dump. No, the biographer’s aiming to put Henry Ward Beecher back together again, so he arises in the reader’s mind as a 3-dimensional personality.

I heard Debby give a talk about her book at the Presbyterian Historical Society Luncheon at our denomination’s General Assembly last month. She spoke of Beecher in a way that intimated he’d become very real to her. I recall her making an offhand remark about how she’d been “living with” Beecher for quite a number of years, as she researched and wrote the book.

The similarity of names makes an unlikely association in my mind to the Marx Brothers’ film, Go West, in which Chico and Harpo are walking up and down a railroad platform as Chico repeatedly calls out, “Mr. Beecher, we’re here to meet you!”

“Are you looking for John Beecher?” asks a serious-looking businessman in a suit. “I’m John Beecher.”

Chico’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “We don’t recognize you, do we, Rusty?” (Rusty is played by Harpo, who emphatically shakes his head “No.”)

“Naturally you don’t recognize me,” sniffs Beecher, officiously. “We’ve never met.”

“Then how do I know it’s you?”

Typical Marx Brothers lunacy.

Does the Siemens Biograph know it’s me? Having sliced me up into a thousand pieces (or, more precisely, into millions of little ones and zeroes), how will it put me back together again?

The technicians running the scanner couldn’t be more cordial or professional, but even so, the whole process is designed to produce a numerical output that falls far short of describing who I really am.

Following protocol, the technician checked my hospital bracelet as I came in. It was his way of answering Chico’s question from the movie: “Then how do I know it’s you?”

Yet, he doesn’t really know me. Nor will the radiologist who reads the results and reports them back to Dr. Lerner. To the inquisitive electronic eye of the Biograph, I’m just a biological system, nothing more.

There’s a famous scene in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock muses on the alienation he feels as a Jew, living in a Christian country:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
[The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1]

One of the things we cancer patients appreciate the most is when someone treats us as a real person, not a mere medical case. I’ve been fortunate to get that sort of response from Dr. Lerner and from most of the people who’ve cared for me, over the past five years or so of tests and treatments.

We’d be foolish to expect that sort of thing from the Biograph – although, as we look to our fellow human beings who wear the lab coats and the nurses’ uniforms, is it out of line for us to hope for a little personal interest in our biography?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

August 16, 2010 - The Big C

This evening, I take a look at Showtime’s new “dramedy” on cancer – The Big C, starring Laura Linney. We don’t have Showtime on our cable contract, but I happen to notice that the full first episode is available as a preview on Showtime’s website.

I presume the 30-minute video I saw was the whole episode. There was a little disclaimer about it having been edited for online viewing, but I take that to mean that the curse words were muted (which they were).

Laura plays Cathy, a Minneapolis high-school teacher who’s just learned she’s got stage 4 melanoma. She declines treatment, and decides not to tell anyone, not even her family. The first episode is all about her bouncing from one wildly inappropriate, self-destructive behavior to another: impulsively deciding to have a swimming pool dug in her front yard, without getting the necessary permits; treating an obnoxious summer-school student with a savage cruelty the writers likely intend to be funny, but isn’t; telling off the cranky, reclusive old lady who lives across the street; overindulging in goopy desserts, liquor and even a cigarette she confiscated from a student.

Yes, I know diagnosis is a terrifying, world-shaking time – and everyone deserves to be cut a little slack in the midst of it – but no one is that crazy.

Linney does a spectacular role of acting the part, but it’s the script that’s over the top. This is a shame, because we cancer survivors could really use an actor of her caliber telling our story. She gets it right on the gut level, in a way that makes viewers identify with her, but she’s shackled by that unrealistic script.

The scene showing her interaction with her doctor is particularly problematic. She tells someone she’s going off to the dermatologist, but this guy is doing more with cancer treatment than any dermatologist I’ve ever heard of. I suppose, in retrospect, he’s really meant to be her oncologist, and the dermatologist story is a little cover-up on her part, but the script never reveals that.

Even as an oncologist, though, he’s unrealistic. There’s a flashback showing Cathy in his office, viewing her tumor on an x-ray film. It’s clearly an x-ray, not a CT or PET Scan.

He also admits to Cathy that she's his "first." First what? Cancer patient? (Not likely, given his years of specialist training.) His first terminal patient? (Again, not likely he missed that experience, if he's been an oncology resident). His first patient to decline all treatment from the get-go? (Maybe a little less unlikely, but not much.) His first melanoma patient? (If that's true, Cathy would be well advised to run as fast as she can, putting as much distance between herself and this rookie as possible.)

So, the writer and director would have us believe that a sensitive and intelligent professional in her late 40s or early 50s, with everything to live for, is going to chuck it all, declining treatment and keeping her diagnosis secret from everyone in her life, based on something she saw on an x-ray film in her doctor’s office? No follow-up tests. No second opinion. Not even a careful weighing of the treatment options, before coming to that momentous decision.

“I’ve always loved my hair,” Cathy tells her doctor, explaining why she’s ignoring his medical advice and declining treatment. “I cry every time I get it cut.”

Now, maybe that’s a feeble attempt at a joke on her part, but if that’s not the case (and there’s no clear indication it is), then the Minneapolis Board of Education is saddled with an astoundingly airheaded high-school history teacher.

The scene is both medically and psychologically inaccurate, and that’s a real missed opportunity – especially since what happens in her doctor’s office is the premise on which the whole series is based.

What, Showtime was too stingy to spring for a decent medical advisor?

Washington Post reviewer Hank Stuever makes a similar point:

“I’ve known people whose loved ones avoided treatment and kept cancer a secret until it was too late. Cathy’s decision is ‘The Big C’s’ most difficult hurdle – a wildly selfish and passive-aggressive act that is difficult to find funny. It also doesn’t seem believable in Cathy’s case – she just seems too smart and articulate to deliberately withhold something like this, unless she’s just being mean. Whatever her reasons, Cathy’s secret cancer does provide ‘The Big C’ a doorway to a fascinating story arc, in which the people in her life come across as unfailingly more selfish than she’s attempting to be.”

While this first episode does a not-so-good job of portraying the personal and medical aspects of a newly-diagnosed cancer patient’s life, it does depict one thing accurately: our society’s fear of cancer. The series, of course, is really about death, and what it means to go on living in its shadow with strength and dignity. It’s significant that the disease chosen as the vehicle for this philosophical and psychological exploration is cancer. The problem is that not all cancers are alike, and not even a metastasized, stage 4 melanoma is a reason to decide to forgo all treatment, especially for a newly-diagnosed patient.

Those quibbles aside, I do recommend the series, based on what I saw. I’d watch it myself if I had Showtime. Guess I’ll have to rent the subsequent episodes on DVD, once they’re available.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What To Say When a Friend Has Cancer

Here's an insightful article, shared by Betsy de Parry on the Patients Against Lymphoma group on Facebook. "Vital Tips to Keep Hope Alive Through Cancer" is a blog post by Lori Hope, a lung cancer survivor, on the CarePages website.

Lori's main focus is on what not to say to friends who have cancer. It really is helpful to think ahead of time about how to use our words in helpful, healing ways.

Sometimes the thoughts that first come to mind aren't all that therapeutic for friends with cancer. They may even make life more difficult. Such comments say more about ourselves, and our anxieties, than about the other's needs.

Here's a brief, digested form of Lori's pointers. For the full list, click on the link to the full article.)

• Don’t inadvertently blame the victims by hinting that they may not be thinking positively.

• Don’t blame the victims by asking about possible risky behaviors they may previously have engaged in, like smoking. This is an absolute no-no. (You may be wondering about it, but don't ask.)

• Don't share stories about people you've known who've had the same form of cancer, but didn't survive (Lori says she needs to hear at least five success stories to counter one such horror story).

To that one, I'd add a codicil: Don't share stories about people who had a completely different kind of cancer, thinking it will somehow be encouraging. The word "cancer" covers a vast family of diseases, making it very hard to generalize from one type to another.

So much for what not to say. Now, here are a few positive suggestions:

• For friends who may find it hard to be continually confronted by discouraging statistics, offer to help with research - but don't forward articles without first reading them through completely.

• Try not to be gloomy. Humor is therapeutic, so help your cancer-survivor friends find things to laugh about!

• Every once in a while, remind your friends you’ll be there for them, no matter what. Some survivors have the experience of losing longtime friends who simply drift away, because they can't handle the situation emotionally. It's always good to be reminded of friends who are still there for us.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

August 3, 2010 - Clinging to the Tail of Possibility

On vacation in the Adirondacks, I read a remarkable article from the August 2 New Yorker magazine. I was tipped to the article by my brother, Jim – though I later learned from Claire that members of her hospice team have been passing it amongst themselves, causing lively discussion in their weekly staff meeting.

I think “Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life,” by Atul Gawande, may set off at least as much debate as his June 1, 2009 article, “The Cost Conundrum: What a Texas town can teach us about health care.” (which I discussed in a July 20, 2009 blog entry, “Where Not to Get Sick.”)

Gawande is a general surgeon who practices at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and who teaches at Harvard Medical School. He’s operated on a lot of cancer patients. Some benefitted mightily from his expertise, and others’ last days would likely have been more tolerable without the invasive procedures. Yet, hindsight is always 20/02, and ahead of time it’s always a tough call.

It’s his physician’s perspective that leads Dr. Gawande to question the lack of agreed-upon procedures for end-of-life decision-making in America. For a country with some of the most advanced medical care in the world, our practices in this area are remarkably haphazard.

Gawande points out that the financial costs of successful cancer treatment can typically be graphed as a bell curve: there’s a steep climb from the time of diagnosis to a sort of plateau, as very expensive scans and treatments are deployed. Then, there’s a drop-off in costs as the patient recovers. In the case of patients whose treatment is unsuccessful, the frequent result is half a bell curve. We throw some very big money at solving problems that are – statistically speaking – unlikely to be solved, sending the line of the graph soaring upwards. Because it’s a human life at stake, doctors typically follow the lead of patients and their families, ordering such last-ditch treatments if that’s what they want. In many such cases, the patient dies anyway, often after many days, or even weeks, of intensive care. If the ICU stay is long, those days can end up costing as much as – sometimes even more than – the cancer treatment itself.

These are agonizingly difficult decisions, some of the toughest in medicine. When to pursue extraordinary, experimental treatment? When to throw in the towel and admit that maintaining a reasonable quality of life for the patient whose health is in a tailspin is more important than the increasingly quixotic search for a cure?

Gawande remarks that nearly all categories of dying patients and their families – with one exception – are ill-prepared to wrestle with such complex, emotionally fraught decisions. When, as too often happens, everyone’s energies are single-mindedly fixed on the search for a cure, doctors fail to raise the what-if question of death at all. It seems to them premature. Yet, when that likelihood suddenly looms large, and quick decisions have to be made about such interventions as feeding tubes and ventilators, patients and families scramble to wrap their minds around the new state of affairs. Unable to achieve unanimity, a great many families fall back to the default position, which is to press on relentlessly in search of a cure – even though the doctors may know, full well, that chances of extending such patients’ lives by more than a few weeks are slim.

Granted – as Claire reminds me, based on her hospice ministry experience – there are some cultural and ethnic traditions that inform this process. Orthodox Jews, for example, typically make decisions within a moral framework that nearly always opts for treatment, no matter what the chances of success. African-Americans and Hispanics, bearing cultural memories of parents and grandparents to whom the system too often denied advanced care, are more likely than others to press for it, even against medical advice.

Referring to science writer Stephen Jay Gould’s oft-quoted 1985 essay, “The Median Isn’t the Message” – in which Gould tells the story of how, upon learning he had mesothelioma, he decided to take his place among the tiny percentage of patients who survive, and did – Gawande speaks of the “tail” of the statistical curve. That’s the narrow portion that stretches a good distance into the future, and includes the fortunate few patients who manage to beat the odds and survive a deadly cancer. It’s good to remember, when faced with such stories, that the statistical median is just that – a median. Always, there are some who do better than clinical expectations, others worse. An awful lot of people, though, are trying to ride the tail of statistical probability – far more than will end up actually being on it. Gawande writes:

“I think of Gould and his essay every time I have a patient with a terminal illness. There is almost always a long tail of possibility, however thin. What’s wrong with looking for it? Nothing, it seems to me, unless it means we have failed to prepare for the outcome that’s vastly more probable. The problem is that we’ve built our medical system and our culture around the long tail. We’ve created a multimillion-dollar edifice for dispensing the medical equivalent of lottery tickets – and have only the rudiments of a system to prepare patients for the near-certainty that those tickets will not win. Hope is not a plan, but hope is our plan.”

I mentioned above that Gawande identifies one category of patients and their families who are better prepared for end-of-life decision-making. He’s talking about those who have received hospice services. Alone among the specialties of modern medicine, the hospice movement is not afraid to face death head-on and talk about it with patients – well before the anxious moment in the little family waiting room just off the ICU, when a doctor (or, just as likely, a critical-care nurse) sits down on the vinyl-covered furniture with the family and informs them a decision needs to be made about discontinuing life-support.

Patients who have signed on for hospice care have already decided they’re not going to cling to the slim tail of possibility any longer. They’re going to strive for the best quality of life they can construct in the here-and-now, placing their hope somewhere other than joining the tiny percentage who defy medical expectations.

I can’t begin to recall the number of grieving family members I’ve spoken with who told me they wished their loved one had gone on hospice earlier. Claire confirms for me, from her experience working with bereaved family members, that this is a nearly-universal comment. Curiously, the vast majority of hospice patients live no longer than a few days. That’s not because hospice care is somehow bad for them – quite the opposite. It’s because, by the time most patients make this decision, they’re already so far gone that hospice functions as little more than a transfer-station between the hospital and the funeral home.

It’s not meant to be that way. The hospice ideal is for weeks or even months of active, but mostly palliative, treatment. The hope is that the hospice experience will provide a gracious space for patients and their families to work through the full range of issues – medical, emotional, spiritual – they need to deal with at the end of life. Surprising as it may seem, there are even some patients who go on hospice for a time, then go off it – their improvement has been such that the “six months or less to live” criterion of hospice admission no longer applies to them.

So, signing up for hospice care is not giving up, as some fear. Far from it.

The key to a higher quality of life for the dying, Gawande points out, is communication. One of the things hospice team members do exceptionally well is to encourage patients and their families to share their thoughts and feelings about dying, then to listen attentively and respectfully to what they say. Next, they help them think through what goals they have for the rest of their lives, and do whatever they can to help them attain them. “You don’t ask, ‘What do you want when you are dying?’” explains one expert. “You ask, ‘If time becomes short, what is most important to you?’” Gawande observes:

“People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and to say what they have seen, who will help people to prepare for what is to come – and to escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.”

The asking of such questions was meant to be a central part of the new health-care legislation recently passed by Congress, but politics blocked it. The Tea Party mob ignorantly slapped the label “death panels”on the funding for these vital conversations, then pressured Congressional leaders to excise it from the bill – which they did, so as not to lose the bigger battle. This is a terrible miscarriage of justice for the dying: the sacrifice of a proven care approach that offered real promise for enhanced quality of life.

When the only goal worth talking about is to beat the disease, Gawande concludes – no matter what that may mean in terms of unproven, experimental treatments – the statistical outcome in nearly every case is going to be disastrous. Which general would you rather have leading the troops into battle? George Armstrong Custer or Robert E. Lee?

“Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And, in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knew how to fight for territory when he could and how to surrender when you couldn’t, someone who understood that the damage is greatest if all you do is fight to the bitter end.”

This article is a good read, for anyone whose life has been touched by cancer – either their own or that of a loved one.