Red, in white shirt and loose thin-black tie and sweating in Maine’s summer heat, is leaning on a rock-wall fence. He’s just opened Andy’s letter found under the black obsidian rock. In the background we hear Andy reading his evocative description of hope: “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.” The movie Shawshank Redemption is a powerful story about hope and life with a message that should resonate with every lung cancer survivor.
I watched the movie the other day and made the connection. Andy was imprisoned for two life sentences with no possibility of parole. He was wrongly convicted of murder and throughout the story of his day-to-day life in prison, everyone tells him “hope is a dangerous thing.” On escaping, Andy proclaims that hope is “maybe the best of things.” The movie story line is exactly parallel to the plight of the late-stage diagnosed lung cancer patient ⎯- an unforgiving disease with hope as the most effective means of avoiding consequences.
For lung cancer, hope is not a medical remedy. While new lung cancer treatments are emerging more frequently now, basic research funding to diagnose and treat lung cancer lags other cancers. Perhaps the pace may pick up, one hopes. Perhaps a treatment may emerge just in time to save a life, one hopes. Perhaps a miracle remission occurs, one hopes. Hope may not be a medical remedy but, for many of us, it is our only effective medicament. And, in my case, hope is “maybe the best of things.”
Recall the story line of Shawshank. Andy’s future is confinement in a mind numbing institution, but he makes a choice to live in a different reality and works diligently, every day, on a novel escape plan. He makes a conscious decision to live. He embraces the hope of escape against all odds. Andy’s poignant characterization about life reveals his reasoning: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” Exactly!
Sometimes in the heat of lung cancer treatment, we forget its purpose ⎯- extended life. No one knows how long but life for most is extended. So what do we do with the extension? Re-read Andy’s characterization.
We long for a period of life extending into satisfying old age. But most without lung cancer do not dwell on the amount remaining on account. Lung cancer patients take careful measure of the balance. But, measure for what end? I believe, if one chooses treatment, then one chooses life. Rather than dwell on the remaining balance, focus on doing something you enjoy everyday. I suggest a survivor forget the past, declare the future irrelevant, and live in the day.
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Stay the course.
This is my fourteenth anniversary surviving a lung cancer diagnosis. Granddaughter Charlett's decorated toes join mine to keep our right feet forward! I paint my toes every year as a celebration of the joy life brings. In early treatment, there was no joy. There was fear, frustration, pain, uncertainty and scanziety. I'd not yet discovered Dr. Phillip Bearman who taught me the reason for lung cancer treatment -- achieving extended life. Phil decided he would live every moment to the fullest despite the rigors of treatment, and he'd celebrate every year of survival with a painted red toenail. He couldn't control his lung cancer, but he could control the way he felt about his lung cancer. I started living when I internalized his message. My first paint job was at my third anniversary and I'll never miss another.
I am a lung cancer survivor. My message for those in treatment is twofold: enjoy the life extension treatment provides and if I can live, so can you.
Stay the course.
It was mid-morning on a beautiful February Sunday in Texas when my phone rang. Randy’s name flashed on my phone screen and on realizing who it was, my mind raced to recall the last time we spoke. Pam his wife greeted me, a mild surprise.
Randy and I grew up in the same Pennsylvanian township and attended high school together. Our lives parted with college and after an Army career took me everywhere but home. Randy settled in our hometown. We had many things in common including surviving lethal cancer.
Five years ago, Randy and I had a fortuitous meeting online in a cancer blog site. Randy was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). We soon reconnected and were gabbling away during marathon telephone calls. When we spoke, our wives went shopping!
Our last conversation was shortly before the Super Bowl. Randy’s disease reoccurred and he was back in chemotherapy. He’d seen blood work indicators during the fall, yet he remained hopeful that treatment would again arrest his cancer. Randy’s form of CLL was characterized by adverse prognostic factors. CLL is rarely cured; never cured applied to Randy.
While recurrence and mortality were frequent topics, hope and joy always dominated our conversations. We helped each other find meaning in our fragile lives. We coached away depression. We talked about everything: music, obtuse rock-in-roll lyrics, being young, high school girls, cars, motorcycles, politics, military tactics, bourbon, ballistics, physics, even the strength characteristics of bolts. We formed a bond of friendship experienced by few.
Pam’s voice was a tell and then instantly I knew Randy was no longer a survivor. Our friendship ended on February 17th. Pam is without her beloved husband, and I am missing my dear friend. Randy was a man of great wisdom tempered by uncommon common sense. His virtues of kindness, selflessness, and courage stood like great pillars in our least-common-denominator world. Today, that world is smaller, colder, and far less interesting.
Stay the course.
Early on, we learn Algebraic equations with only one solution. Then we encounter equations with two solutions -- Quadratic Equations. Consider: x2 + 3x – 4 = 0. This has two solutions: x = -4 or x = 1. Both are correct; one is negative and one is positive. Algebra students get very comfortable with solutions having a positive and negative outcome -- lung cancer survivors are less comfortable!
The positive outcome for lung cancer is extended life. But like quadratic equations, there can be negative outcomes that are less desirable. Mine is chronic pain. So to the question, how does one fit a negative outcome into the positive? No, Algebra does not help. But, for those in treatment or surviving after treatment, preparing for life with negative outcomes is helpful.
My chronic pain has two primary and many secondary causes. I have peripheral neuropathy -- numbness in fingers and toes including a burning sensation in toes and pain in the foot joints. It is a common Taxol side effect, and we informally call it “taxol toes.” Also, I have nerve damage caused by quite a few surgeries to my right chest that is chronically painful. How do I fit these negative outcomes into life?
My strategy is to tolerate chronic pain until bedtime. Then something must be done or I won’t sleep. I’ve cycled through over-the-counter, then prescribed sleep medications. Both worked for a while. Doc found a study suggesting a therapeutic effect for Xanax on chronic pain. He prescribed a 0.5mg dose at bedtime, allowing an increase to a total of 1.5mg. This relaxes me and makes me drowsy. It works about 6-in-10 nights.
A secondary cause sometimes drives pain above chronic levels. These are: chemotherapy induced joint pain; muscle cramps; stress, anger and excitement; sneezing and coughing; and flying on aircraft. The joint pain, an in-treatment side effect, required narcotic medication in every case to relieve. Reliance on narcotics has two downsides: an inability to think and function normally the next day and constipation. However, other secondary causes occasionally require narcotic medication to achieve relief. Because of the downside to narcotics, we’ve developed a couple of unique pain abatement procedures that may be of interest.
Our first strategy is to apply prescribed lidocaine transdermal patches to incision scars and or feet in combination with Xanax. Since lidocaine dosage is limited to 2 patches, my wife cuts them into strips and fits them along my incision scars, and applies them to my feet. A pair of tight fitting socks are stretched over my feet to keep them in place. When the offending pain spike is either in my chest or feet, a full 2-patch application is used. The patches are applied in time to allow the Xanax to work and I sleep, hopefully.
The next works only for feet and is a back-up strategy if lidocaine fails. My wife uses an ace bandage to wrap reusable frozen Blue Ice packs to the bottom of each foot. The cold is very uncomfortable for a couple of minutes, but in a short time my feet are numb and if I’m lucky, I sleep.
Muscle cramping is a long term side effect from chemotherapy. It stems from low Magnesium blood levels. I take at least 500 mg of Magnesium supplement per day. My oncologist would rather I take 1000 mg, but I suffer digestive system revolt. I learned that almonds provide 75 mg of Magnesium per ounce so I snack in lieu of a second pill. Regardless, I still experience one to two cramping events per day. When they occur anywhere near my feet or chest, chronic pain soars. There is however, no remedy for cramps. The worst occur in the middle of the night and wake me up.
Archimedes, the ancient Greek hydrologist, provided an explanation for why immersing up to my neck in a swimming pool eases incision pain. The upward buoyant force of the water offsets the gravitational pull on chest incisions thus minimizing pain. Almost every day our community pool is open, I spend hours in the water. This does not eliminate pain but reduces it noticeably. On leaving the pool, the normal level returns but it is very therapeutic. Lying in a bathroom tub, unfortunately, does not work because there is not enough water for complete submersion. A hot tub works fine, but there is no difference in pain relief from water temperature.
Flying in a commercial airliner also spurs chronic incision pain. Most airlines pressurize their cabin between 6,000 and 8,000 feet pressure altitude. This lower-than-sea-level pressure expands my chest cavity increasing incision pain. All commercial flights hurt but long flights are very painful often requiring a dose of narcotic medication in flight. Not flying is the only remedy. Those having thoracic surgery have long complained of incision pain after commercial air flights and cabin pressure is the cause.
Another secondary cause is extensive coughing and sneezing. Sneezing is particularly bad when it is a “surprise sneeze”. During the worst pollen events, I stay indoors and I try and avoid school age children to keep the chest colds in check, especially when school is in session. The last secondary cause I have the most control over: stress, anger and excitement. Admittedly, excitement is the easiest to control except when the Dallas Cowboys are playing my beloved Philadelphia Eagles. These two games a year are indeed stressful and since I live among cowboys, someone is going to be angry over the outcome.
My wife reminds me when I complain too much that I am lucky to be alive. What’s a little pain given the alternative. She’s right. Doc reminds me to avoid scheduling things in the morning so I can sleep-in late if pain interferes. He’s right. Football season is right around the corner and it is a good thing games are scheduled in the afternoon and evening.
Now if the Eagles start winning, everything will be fine!
Stay the course.
Meet Charlett Emilyrose Wilson, my first grandchild. Her parents, daughter Melissa and son-in-law Bill, are overjoyed. I am ecstatic! Proud would be a vast understatement!
Charlett was born 12-years, 8-months, and 13-days after my diagnosis with NSCLC. I celebrate this joyful milestone in my life for but one reason. If I can live, so can you.
Stay the course.
Perhaps you’ve heard? The federal government is a large insurance business with a standing army. Social Security is insurance — a specific kind of insurance called an annuity. The insured and employer pay premiums every month to fund a defined benefit at a specified year (normally your federally mandated retirement year). Everything is peachy-keen till a disability affects work because one has late stage lung cancer. And, when a lung cancer survivor files for disability, allowed by law and regulation, the federal government almost always disapproves. So, here are some suggestions for obtaining disability benefits by disapproval.
1. Expect to be Disapproved. I know a lot of folks with lung cancer. Among this population, only one was approved on initial application. He passed before he received his first benefit check. My company provided disability insurance carrier filed my first application. I had an unresolved bronchopleural fistula after a pneumonectomy that required a second and third surgery and indications of tumors metastasized to my remaining lung. My claim, filed by a former Social Security claims adjuster, was disapproved.
2. Involve Your Doctors. The disability application requires you to disclose all your physicians and medical providers. Then, the administration asks for medical records, reports and observations. Doctors are busy folks; oncologists are bombarded by SSA requests for information, and for good reason. Late-stage lung cancer (including treatment and side-effects) is often disabling. Inform your medical providers of your application and ask them to help by responding to the request for information.
3. Complete the Application. The Social Security Administration is a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies love to find “nits” in applications and return with some very vague description of the problem. This delays a decision and delays payment, and these are typical insurance company behaviors. Read every word of the disability application process (it is all online at www.ssa.gov) and check your application closely to ensure it is complete and error free. Have several family members check it also after reading the application instructions. Ensure you completely describe your symptoms including those caused by side-effects. Also, completely describe how these symptoms affect your ability to stand, sit, walk, bend over, think, concentrate, and etc. (Hint - read the criteria that will be used to determine your disability finding and use those words as descriptors).
4. Understand the Fine Print. There is payment delay: six full months after the date of disability (date shown on claim approval letter). Depending on other income sources, payments may be taxable. You are not found to be permanently disabled. Regulations allow a review of your status after start of disability payments. It is not a good idea to join an adult softball team while receiving disability payments! You are not eligible for Medicare until 24 months after receipt of first disability payment. Your disability payment will be less than your full retirement benefit, and when you reach retirement age, your retirement benefit will not be increased.
5. Lawyering Up. Filing the initial disability application online is a good idea, as long as it is properly completed and supported by doctor reports and observations. But when denied, it is time to level the playing field and retain a lawyer. Not any lawyer, but a law practice that specializes in Social Security Disability appeals. By law, they cannot charge you for their services. They collect fees directly from the Administration if an administrative law judge approves your appeal. And, most important, they know what they are doing and it is in their financial interest to do a good job on your appeal!
The disability process is deliberate, lengthy and frustrating. Like lung cancer, success involves persistence. Insurance companies don’t relish paying claims and every approved disability claim turns a premium into a disbursement. But, Social Security is insurance with disability payment provisions that you pay for! If you can’t work, apply, appeal and persist!
Stay the course.
"Count-off...One, Two...Count-off...Three, Four...Bring it on down now...One, Two, Three, Four, One-Two...Three-Four!"
My life is filled with counting. As a young soldier on the march, we counted cadence to stay in step. The rhythm of the cadence was an elixir to the mile-upon-mile-upon-mile of forced march in full combat load. They always scheduled the forced march on the hottest day, or the wettest day, or the coldest day of the year. One memorable march was the day after a hurricane! Weather or not, we marched and counted.
After diagnosis with lung cancer, my life embraced a different sort of cadence. There was the countdown to scan day, then time stopped waiting for results. One...what time is it...just ten in the morning...the clock battery is out...is it back...how bad...how many nodules...how big...ten-oh-two...mets in the bones...liver also...scan tech didn't smile...he saw something...ohGod.... Life just stopped waiting for results. Time stopped!
Waiting for scan results is absolute misery coupled with measured doses of agony and anguish, torment, despondency and gloom thrown in for good measure! Each day was a twenty-five-mile forced march that started but never ended. Cancer sucks but waiting for scan results sucks squared!
Stay the course.
Baseball is a game that requires patient players and fans. Like lung cancer treatment, there is a lot of waiting for something to happen. Also like lung cancer, the game is unpredictable. A single pitch can change the outcome of a game like a single cell can change the outcome of treatment. And like lung cancer, baseball has many uncertainties and these are defined by odds. The best hitters succeed a little better than one in three times; the best teams winning about six in ten games. Baseball players need to persevere against low odds of success to achieve victory. So do lung cancer patients.
A lung cancer diagnosis is devastating. Recurrence after treatment is common and traumatizing. We ought to prepare for the distress of recurrence. Treatment, even for those diagnosed at early stage, is not likely to be a walk-off home run. I was not prepared for treatment failure. How common is recurrence?
A National Cancer Institute study suggests about 33 percent of stage IA and IB patients experience a reoccurrence. Up to 66 percent of stage IIA, IIB, or IIIA experience a reoccurrence. Interestingly, these percentages are virtually identical for both adenocarcinoma and squamous cell lung cancers. What about stage IIIB or IV disease? The study reports recurrence about half that of lower stages but suggests this is due to competing risk of mortality.
Including surgery, my treatment success average was a dismal 1 for 5. That translates to a baseball batting average of .200, yielding a quick trip to the minor leagues. I had four recurrences after no evidence of disease (NED) treatments. We didn’t know perseverance was a requirement and we were not prepared.
How should we prepare? Here is what I didn’t do. Have a frank conversation with my oncologist seeking information on recurrence likelihood. Share this information with my family to ensure they were prepared for bad news. Finally, celebrate my NED state by fully engaging in life. NED is that extra life treatment buys and we did not take maximum advantage of it.
A sidebar benefit of surviving is accumulating lessons learned. I now completely understand that lung cancer is a persistent malady that is difficult to eradicate with unpredictable treatment outcomes. Like the best baseball players, we need to take our turn at each new treatment with a fresh perspective, forgetting our last experience and striving only to put the ball in play and arrest our disease.
Stay the course.
How does one find joy in lung cancer? I find some of mine by celebrating survival, and there is no better way than to attend a LUNGevity sponsored Breathe Deep event.
Our's was a pleasant but breezy fall Texas day and about a hundred of us showed up to the celebratory walk-jog-run event. Our pleasant jaunt around the Arlington Texas park also raised thousands of dollars to undertake LUNGevity focused research for new diagnostic and treatment methods for lung cancer. But, while fund raising is vital, celebrating survival is even more important. When we meet and walk together, we become a powerful symbol of hope. We become energized. We find a moment of joy.
Forum moderator Susan Cornett and I met each other for the first time at today's event. We've been internet connected for nearly 2 years but our in person meeting was a wonderful experience. We talked about vacations taken and planned, survivor memories, and shared life experiences. I took this photo of Susan with her mom and dad who turned out to help Susan celebrate life after lung cancer. We had a grand time.
Stay the course.
“Drug-related deaths have grown to be a major US public health problem over the last two decades. Between 2006 and 2015 there were more than 515,000 deaths from drug overdoses.…” This from a March 26 article in Science Magazine. The death rate averages 5,722 per year over the cited period. Further, “the drug epidemic is a pressing concern among policymakers.” This concern translates to a $865 million research budget for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This budget funds $151,117 per individual drug-related death.
This year, 163,199 Americans are projected to die from lung cancer. The National Institute of Health Lung Cancer research budget for 2018 is $282 million. This level of research amounts to only $1,727 per individual death.
Lung cancer kills 28 times more people per year than drug addition, but the drug addiction research budget is 87 times larger then lung cancer’s on a per-death basis. Clearly, our public health policy makers fail to understand the meaning of the word major. The major and largely unaddressed US public health problem is death from lung cancer.
Stay the course.
MY STEPS TO SURVIVING A LUNG CANCER DIAGNOSIS
Step 1 – Invest in sophisticated diagnosics before diagnosis
If you smoke, were a long-term smoker, or are in an occupation that exposes you to carcinogenic toxins (asbestos removal, auto mechanic, painter, etc.), I suggest getting a computed tomography (CT) scan, often called a CAT scan, of the chest once a year. Insurance now covers it and CT will detect tumors far earlier than a chest x-ray. Early detection of small tumors dramatically enhances your survival chances. I had a chest x-ray in January 2004 and was diagnosed with inoperable stage 3b, non-small cell lung cancer the following month. The tumor hadn’t shown on the x-ray; but at diagnosis, it was almost 3 inches long and ½ inch in diameter. The only symptom I had was coughing up blood the day before diagnosis. Learn more about early CT screening.
Step 2 – Choose a good general practitioner
Your general practitioner may be the manager of your lung cancer treatment. The GP likely will pick your cancer team and may need to do a little arm-twisting to get things moving. Therefore, there can be great benefits to having a GP who is seasoned and well known in the medical community. I prefer doctors of osteopathic medicine to medical doctors. I’ve found that in my experience the former treat people, not patients. I believe a good physician shows kindness, consideration, and compassion toward those in his or her care. These characteristics are essential. Be sure you know your GP and your GP knows you. Such knowledge and trust will give you a survival edge. There are great health care professionals out there.
Step 3 – Ensure your oncologist is a physician
A doctor has a degree in medicine and a license to practice. A physician is devoted to restoring, maintaining, and promoting your good health. My physician oncologist does a complete examination (looks in eyes, nose, and throat, checks pulse in the extremities, checks reflexes, listens to breathing and heart rate) every visit. He reviews and explains all test results and asks how I feel. He looks at me as I speak, and he listens and makes notes on what I say. He carefully explains medical treatment alternatives that may arrest the disease, and together we choose each next step. He never rushes consultations and, consequently, often is late to scheduled appointments. Because his tardiness results from spending time with those he treats, I know he cares about me and every other patient. These are some characteristics your physician oncologist should possess.
Step 4 – Learn about your disease
At diagnosis, I had no idea what lung cancer was. Moreover, I didn’t know what an oncologist did, nor could I spell the word! After diagnosis, I read everything I could find about the disease; a good resource is the www.LUNGevity.org website. Then I read medical journals, government reports, research papers, and studies. I made notes about things I didn’t understand and asked questions at my oncology consultations. My wife attended every consultation, procedure, and test to ensure every question was asked and answered, and that we understood the answers. You need to know about type, stage, statistics, radiation, diagnostics, chemotherapy, side effects, surgical options, and so much more. Your chances of survival are improved if you are informed enough to ask highly perceptive questions.
Step 5 – Acquire a sanguine attitude quickly
Cancer is a disease of death; lung cancer kills more than all other cancers. Your attitude toward treatment is, I believe, essential to survival. When you acquire a sanguine attitude, your treatment team will notice your optimism. They will enjoy interacting with you; they will care about you. I strongly suggest you read Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “The Median Isn’t the Message” to help you understand survival statistics and find optimism about what appear to be bleak probability of survival projections. Join a cancer blog or messageboard. I am a member of several where I can broadcast my complaints and protestations to people who understand and have useful advice for coping. Find cancer support groups and join one. Most people who treat you have no idea how you are feeling. But survivors in cancer support groups understand; they know how you feel—you’ll fit right in!
Step 6 – Any port in a storm
There is no such thing as “a little stick!” During procedures and treatment, almost everyone will attempt to gain access to your veins with an intravenous device of some type. All such intrusions are uncomfortable, and unless the practitioner is good and lucky he or she will miss more often than not. If your treatment involves intravenously administered chemotherapy, you likely will get stuck at least once a week. A good way to avoid discomfort and frustration is to ask for a port. Installation involves simple, low-risk surgery. Once in place, you need to keep the area clean and exercise precautions when bathing—but access to your veins is no longer a storm but a port in a storm!
Step 7 – Don’t believe the miracle cure
The consequences of a lung cancer diagnosis are frightening. For most, it will be your first serious encounter with the prospect of death. When you type “lung cancer” into Google, you will be bombarded by advertisement that promises miracle cure at considerable expense. There is no such thing as a miracle cure! Before you invest time (now precious) investigating one of these “too good to be true” remedies, check it out onwww.quackwatch.org and discuss it with your physician. Oncology is a medical science. Procedures, drugs, and protocols are tested using scientific methods that are published and reviewed by peers and regulating organizations. When science-based breakthroughs are discovered, they are broadcast very quickly throughout the practitioner community.Read about Steve Jobs—one of the smartest technologists and businessmen the world has ever known—who delayed his cancer treatment.
Step 8 – Don’t try to tough it out
I am a retired soldier and believed I was man enough to handle almost anything. Cancer proved to be the “anything” I could not handle! I suffered a long time trying to tough it out before I admitted I was depressed. My physician’s response: “Of course you are depressed—how could you not be?” He prescribed appropriate medication, arranged consultations with a physiologist, and suggested I attend support groups. Unless you are tougher than I, you will experience depression. Admit it and accept help. Here are some other things you might try. Ask for the “freeze spray” before an IV is used. If claustrophobic, get a script for Xanax and take it shortly before scans. Even in summer, wear warm clothing to diagnostic and infusion sessions. Some areas where these take place are kept very cold. Many treatment centers have volunteers—engage one in conversation. Many are survivors or caregivers and have a wealth of helpful information. During consultations, I was so frightened I couldn’t rationally ask questions about results or next steps, and I certainly couldn’t remember what was said. Consequently, I never go alone to a consultation. I suggest if you can, always have someone with you too.
Step 9 – Become a calendar maniac
If you have a smartphone with a calendar application, become an expert in its use. If not, keep a paper “cancer calendar” to record information. Your life after diagnosis will likely become filled with scheduled appointments, and given the nature of the disease and intensity of the battle, these are appointments you don’t want to miss. For example, my chemotherapy cycle required an infusion every third Friday. I had to record three rounds of steroid medication taken every six hours before each infusion. I had a scheduled blood test every Monday following infusion. Nausea started Sunday morning and lasted until Tuesday. Joint pain started Wednesday and lasted until Saturday. If I took the nausea medication about an hour before onset, symptoms often were minimal. Furthermore, if I started pain medication a couple of hours before onset, my pain was manageable. I used the alarm feature on my phone to warn me in advance. Plus, there was life to live, and the calendar helped me avoid conflicts between my cancer treatment schedule and my life events schedule.
Step 10 – Choose to live
When asked about my cancer experience, I often tell those in treatment that cancer is a disease of life or death. I believe if you choose treatment, you are choosing life. And if you choose to live, do something with the life you are given. The “something” will be different for each of us, but doing whatever you enjoy or find fulfilling is so important. If you enjoyed an activity before diagnosis, do it afterward. Look at yourself in the mirror every morning. If you don’t see an expiration date stamped on your forehead, then enjoy the day and look forward to the next! Oh, by the way, your hair will grow back! Baldness is a beautiful badge of courage.
Stay the course.
The summer Olympics kindles an unpleasant anniversary. I was in hospital recovering from a failed bronchopleural fistula surgery complicated by pulmonary embolism, further complicated by pneumonia, and then aspirational pneumonia. After surgical mayhem and ensuing coma, I settled into a nil per os or NPO recovery from a uncooperative epiglottis. July, August, and early September of 2004 were clearly the worst days of my life. The only joy was watching Katie Couric’s daytime TV Olympic broadcast from Athens. Two weeks of Olympic distraction amid repetitive admissions to the ICU as my doctors, nurses, and respiratory technicians struggled to keep me alive.
I don’t have specific memories of the games or any athlete. I can only recall the TV setting for Couric’s broadcast -- a shoreline location framed by Greek coastal mountains in the background and the deepest blue ocean I’ve ever seen. I’d wait for her show to come on and the camera to pan along breathtaking vistas while smelling coffee and food deliveries. I longed for so many things in that time. The smell of hospital-grade coffee was so tantalizing, it almost undid me. Till I met the hospital speech pathologist. She delivered the undoing.
Lung cancer patients learn a lot about hospitals. Doctors, excepting surgeons and anesthesiologists, do very little hands on patient care. This is the realm of nurses and medical technicians. But, who treated my lazy epiglottis -- a speech pathologist. A young woman, as I can recall, small in stature but with the confidence and swagger of an army SERGEANT MAJOR.
For those not acquainted with a sergeant major, it is best you not cultivate a relationship. They make the army THE ARMY. They are not nice, friendly, kind or cuddly. They are confident, demanding, curt, and irascible, in the extreme! My speech pathologist was the hospital’s SERGEANT MAJOR. She chewed out my surgeon for slipping me a cough drop. “Can’t you read the NPO sign”, she barked in a voice that made doc jump out of his skin. The ENT doc who scoped my defective epiglottis deconflicted his visits to stay out of her range.
She was the only one in the major medical center who knew anything about treating a uncooperative epiglottis? And, like army sergeants major, she was a taskmaster. Indeed talking (screaming) was the therapy. She wrote out weird, difficult, nearly unpronounceable guttural sounds that I had to recite despite the discomfort of a nose-to-stomach feeding tube. She appeared 4 times-per-day to drill me, then often 2 or more surprise visits to ensure I was properly bellowing. This guttural workout, combined swallowed-thickened-liquid observed by a timid radiologist manning a fluoroscope in the presence of the sergeant major, lasted nearly a month. But it worked.
The 2016 Olympics are in Rio, but the games take me back to Athens and my speech pathologist sergeant major. Thank you Sergeant Major!
Stay the course.
Chances are you pay attention to new treatment developments. I was aimlessly scrolling through a social media app when I happened on a dramatic interview. Everything was staged to look legit. The interviewer looked like a TV reporter, the background scene looked like a doctor’s office, and the set up question “doctor, let me talk about cancer a little bit” got my attention.
The camera changes views to the doctor as the reporter says, “what are some of the things you’ve seen in terms of your patients?” Then we see the doctor. He looks like a doctor, well dressed with a confident assuring voice. He changes the subject saying “a better thing to talk about“ and his name and titles flash and disappear on the screen: Peter Glidden, BS, ND (note not MD).
He cited an unnamed study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology in 1994, a 12-year program that looked at adults who had developed cancer, further clarifying adult cancer as “the main type of cancer we get here in the United States.” He described the study as a “meta analysis of people all around the world for 12 years who were treated with chemo…and the result?”
“Ninety-seven percent of the time chemotherapy does not work.” Dramatically and shaking his head for emphasis, he repeats the same statement, then he asks “so why is it still used?” “Money”, he answers. “Chemotherapeutic drugs are the only classification of drugs that the prescribing doctor gets a direct cut of…the only reason chemotherapy is used is because doctors make money from it…period…it doesn’t work…97-percent of the time.”
Continuing, he says: “We have lost the war on cancer in the United States…why…when you try to bring a reductionistic phenomena like drugs and surgery to bear on a holistic phenomena, you will completely miss the boat each and every time.” Further he emphatically states, “if every girl in this country took 200-micrograms of Selenium, in one generation, we’d eliminate breast cancer by 82%; now why aren’t we doing that?”
So, let’s take a deep dive into Peter Glidden’s claims and supporting data. First, consider his probability predictions: 97-percent of the time chemo doesn’t work and 200-micrograms of Selenium eliminates breast cancer by 82% in one generation. These predictions sound authentic, like there was a test to determine outcomes. But, no scientist, doctor, or engineer would ever describe a statistically based probability outcome using just a naked percentage.
There is always uncertainty and professionals bound uncertainty with a confidence level. An engineer might say that concrete will achieve a 6,000 psi end strength but will disclose the testing sample size, mean, standard deviation and confidence level that justify the end strength statement. Test results never exactly replicate. The end strength will vary between some acceptable range. But Glidden’s claim is precisely 97-percent. It is unsupported. Moreover, it is debunked in the literature. Here is a good on-line summary about the unsupported claim .
But, to even make a 97-percent statement, one would need to know, with certainty, the cause of death of each of the thousands of people who had chemotherapy. Were autopsies performed? Might some have died of natural causes, traffic accidents or other illnesses? A statistically significant record of “meta data of people all around the world treated for 12 years” does not exist. Do they have data in the Fiji Islands, Kenya, Somalia, Bangladesh or North Korea?
How about his 200-microgram Selenium cure for breast cancer? He says it would eliminate breast cancer by 82% in one generation. I’m not even sure I know what eliminate by 82-percent means. Think about how imprecise this claim is. How long is one generation? How did you determine it was 82%? How sure are you it is 82%? I could drive a main battle tank through the gates of this claim’s imprecision!
Now to his claim that cancer is not a reductionistic phenomena, suggesting that drugs or surgery misses the boat “each and every time.” I’m one of those “each and every time” and my survival from drugs and surgery proves him wrong. Does naturopathic treatment actually cure cancer? I don’t know but neither does Gladden. Here is some interesting reading about Naturopathic Doctors.
Peter Glidden’s video extolling a simple nutritional supplement as a cancer cure is compelling. He is dramatic, confident and to a diagnosed lung cancer patient facing an arduous regime of chemotherapy, persuasive. Why bother with the chemotherapy if I can take Selenium and cure my cancer?
If you are reading this, you or someone you care about has lung cancer. Time is of the essence. You have but three choices: do nothing, conventional medicine, and holistic medicine or some derivative of the same. Do nothing is the least expensive alternative. You pay nothing and might live. Miracles happen.
Conventional medicine and holistic medicine will cost your money. How do I make the choice? I put my money on science-based conventional medicine treatment because treatment outcomes are repeatable. Mark Twain said it best: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” Gladden is trying really hard to convince us he’s 97-percent sure chemo doesn’t work. It just ain’t so.
Stay the course.
The other day, in conversation with a newly minted medical school graduate, he told me low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) was dangerous. Dangerous! If LDCT is dangerous, what is late discovery of lung cancer? He nearly fainted when I told him I had perhaps more than 40 CT scans in my treatment history, telling me I was a candidate for radiation induced cancer. It didn’t seem to register that I was a candidate for extinction by lung cancer.
We are told the only effective way of treating our disease is early discovery. Few dispute this point. Why then would the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) want to reduce reimbursement for low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) screening by more than 40 percent? The Society of Thoracic Surgeons is concerned calling LDCT a “game changer in the battle against lung cancer.”
Then I read: “Family physicians lack sufficient knowledge about recommendations for LDCT." Moreover, Doctors Patz and Chen, professors of radiology at Duke, say: “Not screening patients annually could save millions in health care costs and spare patients the radiation exposure and downstream effects of false positive screenings.” Something is very wrong. We have an effective tool for early discovery of life-threatening disease when not discovered early, and there is a campaign mounted against using it.
CMS is a federal government-funded agency. In government programs there is a big difference between savings (cash you can put in the bank) and avoidance (cash spent elsewhere). CMS money is appropriated in broad categories. Once appropriated, fiscal managers move money around to address other needs or requirements. Appropriated federal funds are almost never returned to the Treasury. So the reduced funding for LDCT will be a bill payer for some other CMS program. No money is saved; it is spent on something else.
Further, when making a valid cost avoidance argument, one must identify all cost. For example, the professors of radiology predicting savings for reduced screening do not identify the millions of dollars of increased cost for treating late-stage-diagnosed lung cancer. A cost avoided almost always results in cost added somewhere else, and without disclosing added burden, professionals are making very unprofessional arguments.
Lastly, and most importantly, no one advocating reducing LDCT is considering the most important impact—suffering. There is a vast amount with late-stage diagnosis. Suffering affects more than the lung cancer survivor; it devastates families. While real and detrimental, suffering defies quantification in dollars. Several hundreds-of-thousands of us in the United States will suffer a late-stage lung cancer diagnosis this year. LDCT can eliminate some of this.
In this light, it is hard to understand the assault against using LDCT to find, fix, and finish lung cancer!
Stay the course.
Today, in the United States, we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. Our first president, George Washington, called for an official “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” in 1789 and although the Congress heartily agreed, the proclamation was lost in the bureaucratic press of politics. It fell to Abraham Lincoln to rekindle the Thanksgiving Holiday shortly after the pivotal battle of our Civil War—Gettysburg in 1863. Thus in the mist of warfare and uncertainty, a holiday dedicated to thankfulness was founded.
Today, we gather to celebrate life and thank the Almighty for health and bounty. Thankfulness for me, a lung cancer survivor, is particularly significant for I have been blessed to witness one of life’s most memorable events: birth of a first grandchild.
During my recent visit, while cradling her in my arms, I felt a connection with my infant-offspring. As the picture captures, Charlett Emilyrose was looking intently into my eyes, unusual for a three-week old baby. She held my gaze for the longest time as if painting a mental portrait. Her grandfather was joyous and delighted and thankful.
This touching moment is unfortunately rare for those with lung cancer. By statistical expression, Thanksgiving 2005 should have been my last celebration. Yet, nearing my 13th year of surviving a lung cancer diagnosis, I am so thankful to have witnessed the birth of a grandchild. Providence has indeed showered me with gifts.
So today I give thanks for survival and in the spirit of George Washington’s original scope of holiday, I pray all who suffer the effects of this horrid disease experience the joy and delight I felt as I held my granddaughter in my arms. Happy Thanksgiving all.
Stay the course.
I've seen the star of Bethlehem, very early on Christmas morning. While peacekeeping in Egypt's Sinai Desert, I would run before daybreak as soldiers are prone to do. Although the desert is quite cold in December, dawn running was a habit hard to break. I ran the camp perimeter to check the defensive positions and greet soldiers enjoying the banter in three different languages. Starting in the south perimeter and running counterclockwise, the predawn western sky was dark except for the stars that were so clear, they were painted on the black night sky. Passing along the northern perimeter, the sky lightened and my expectation was the sun starting its rise. But, no, not that day. Right on the distant horizon was a cosmic anomaly, a false dawn, but a bright shining nevertheless. I was looking at the star in the east seen by the Three Wise Men as they rode in search of Jesus. I would later learn, it was not a star but a rare conjunction of the planets -- Jupiter, Saturn and Mars -- all rising in the east slightly before being washed out by the rising sun. I am awestruck by that memory.
Many years later after surviving a years worth of cancer surgery and while waiting the results of my first post-surgical diagnostic scan, my entire family gathered to celebrate Christmas. Mom, dad, four brothers, daughter, and a posse of nieces who overwhelmed my one nephew comprised the gathering. Despite my manifest uncertainty, we had a joyous time. I can count on a single hand the times my family gathered. With two Galli soldiers, someone was always missing on deployment. But Christmas in 2004 was an assembly formation, and the clan was all present and accounted for. We celebrated Christmas and my life. I am awestruck by that memory.
Then started the clammer lung cancer treatment. In my treatment years after the Christmas 2004 assembly, my life hovered in sadness and despair. I allowed myself to become overwhelmed by uncertainty, indeed I could think of little else. I forget there are only two things certain in the human experience: birth and death. Everything else is uncertain; outcomes are unpredictable. Treatment was working for I was granted extra life. There were many opportunities for joy but they were frittered away. I am awestruck by those memories.
In common with all lung cancer survivors, having been born, I have only one certain human experience yet to deal with -- death. Its timing is uncertain with or without lung cancer. In my memories of active treatment, I chose to let life pass me by forever losing opportunities for joy.
Today we celebrate a birth, a new beginning. It was announced by a star. I've seen the star. Let the joy of this birth be a new beginning for all lung cancer survivors. Let us live and find joy in the life we have and be awestruck by the memories of life well lived.
Stay the course.
Today we celebrate 13 years of surviving NSCLC. I'm borrowing three toes from Martha, my wife and caregiver extraordinaire, who deserves most of the credit for my continued life. Martha did the heavy lifting during treatment, asking the right questions at the right time, and prodding my medical team with just the right touch. By comparison, I was at wit's end during my nearly 4 years of continuous treatment. Doctors McK (GP), H (Oncologist) and C (Thoracic Surgeon) also deserve a lion's share of credit. Collectively, they share a trait that distinguishes them from the rest of medical community -- they treat people, not patients.
The red toenail painting tradition was started by a Dr. Phillip Berman, radiologist and never smoker, who was diagnosed with Stage IV NSCLC. In an early Internet cancer website he founded, RedToeNail.org, he vowed to paint a toenail red for each year he survived what he called "this nastiness." He painted 5 before passing but taught me a great deal about living with lung cancer. During treatment, he was playing with his children, exercising, interacting with friends, and finding something to enjoy every day. In other words, he embraced the life he had and lived every day reveling in the joy he discovered. His lesson -- those who choose treatment choose life and the important thing is to do something with the life you have. I pass his powerfully evocative message to you. If you suffer with lung cancer then resolve to live every day and find something to enjoy. Realize that if I can live, so can you. Paint your toenails red!
Stay the course.
We often hear smoking gun used to describe the “ah ha” moment of a who done it. I was unsure of the meaning and asked Siri. My Apple genius defined it as “as piece of incontrovertible incriminating evidence.”
I know two things with high confidence: (i) there is a very strong correlation between smoking and lung cancer, and (ii) implying smoking as a cause adds to the self-induced stigma that smacks down research for my disease. So, how do we address the stigma without pointing the smoking gun?
I couldn’t stop because I was addicted to nicotine. When I was young and fearless, almost everyone smoked and I joined the crowd. In my 30’s, most quit. I tried, many times and ways, but couldn’t. My addiction was stronger than will power. Addiction is irrational. Most addicts recognize the harm, but recognition caves in the face of physical craving.
How is addiction to nicotine different from alcohol, heroin, or cocaine? It isn’t but what do the health authorities call it? The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says smoking caused 480,000 deaths last year in the United States. Note absence of the word addiction. The CDC also says about 88,000 people die annually from alcohol abuse. Note abuse is not addiction. Almost 35,000 people died from heroin overdose in 2015, according to the National Institute of Health. Note again, overdose is not addiction. It is unreasonable to suggest these deaths resulted from one time or occasional use.
I contend not using addiction to characterize the root cause is part of the problem. If I smoke, abuse or overdose, I am branded guilty of doing something wrong. I am causing the problem. There is no disease or medical abnormality; therefore, there is nothing to research. This individual guilt becomes a collective stigma. If our national health authority doesn’t treat use as addictive, it certainly won’t be prone to find new treatments. Nor, will there be interest in treating consequences. Thus, the paltry research funding for lung cancer.
Many people experiment with addictive drugs and are fortunate to stop short of addiction. But, when one can’t stop, one is addicted and mechanisms must be found to treat the addiction. So, let’s change the nomenclature. I am addicted to nicotine and my addiction likely caused lung cancer. Where is the smoking gun pointed now?
Stay the course.
I'm writing this from a Florida Hospital radiation clinic waiting room. My daughter is having intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) to treat her meningioma residual left over from surgery 3 months ago. This was her second brain surgery and in between was the birth of my granddaughter. Ironically, our greatest joy was sandwiched between our greatest fear.
She'll have at least 30 fractional sessions. I'm here doing grandfather and father stuff, the former fun, the latter hard as nails.
There are substantial risks. The tumor residual is lodged around her eye socket and the impact to her vision is of vast concern. We've talked about it. Mostly we try and forget. Daughter feeds back my mantra of only worrying about things that can be controlled but it doesn't ease my concern. Too much experience in this radiation domain to not worry. I find myself undone by uncertainty, again!
Yesterday's clinical visit experience was my first in a long time. Things haven't changed. Quiet people waiting for their time with "the beast", families talking in hushed tones, most have lost hair indicating combination therapy. One change: the radio oncologist came out to greet my daughter. He supervised the fitting of the facial fixture and stayed through the entire dose application. That was unique in my experience and immensely comforting. Maybe the cancer community is learning to treat people not patients.
Passing on parental knowledge and experience is expected but not on this subject matter. We need to fry this tumor, but the potential vision side-effects are disconcerting. We've got one chance, twenty-nine radiation bullets left, and then scanziety and hope. Tumor is a word I need to discard from my vocabulary.
We will stay the course.
I had an interesting chat with my general practitioner over the Fourth of July holiday. He’s a gentleman rancher with an abundance of tomatoes so I brokered an invite to his beautiful ranch to relieve him of his abundance.
A social cup of coffee segued into a wide ranging conversation about medicine, ranching, politics, engineering and cancer treatment. Doc has lots of opinions but they are founded on deep study and comparative analysis. But, unlike most intelligent people, he rarely uses technospeak but rather explains complex topics in easily understood words and concepts. Thus fostering interesting conversation. The topic turned to patients seeking second opinions and physician egos. His words are worth capturing: “I don’t mind a patient seeking a second opinion…I get paid.”
Doctors are important people in our society. Our adulation of their skills causes us to forget that in a pay for service system, customers have a right to express dissatisfaction and seek alternative practitioners. If you don’t like the medical service you pay for, find someone who provides better service.
Stay the course.
There are advantages to receiving lung cancer treatments in small clinical settings. Among them is everyone knows your name and treatment circumstances. Scheduled for a CT scan with contrast yesterday, when I checked in I was routed to the infusion area to have my IV device installed. Chris, the radiology technician who’s been scanning me for almost 14 years, is well aware of the difficulty of installing an IV. So he passes me to the infusion nurses who yesterday managed to capture a vein, first try!
But, the infusion area was packed and so I had my device installed in proximity to the treatment complete celebration bell. In my day, the occasion was not a big celebratory photo op. One would ring the bell softly because many were asleep during infusion. Consequently, I never got a photo. Yesterday’s photo will be added to my archives. It is shared with you because it took three rings to find life. Lung cancer is persistent. Treatment is often a marathon but one that can be won!
Stay the course.
Today we pause to celebrate new life, life continued, and hope renewed. For me this is a holy season but it has a much broader meaning, especially for those struggling with lung cancer. Christmas Day is a celebration of new life and a continuation of life. The new life is Christ while continuation is everyone alive. Including especially, those who live with lung cancer. We have at first glance an insurmountable challenge: to live with a disease that consumes our body with cells made of our body. Indeed, our disease is a paradoxical phenomena. Yet, we live. We rise above the biological paradox, thus our celebration of life continued.
The hope of the season is reflected in many ways. On earth's scale, each day length changes as we orbit towards spring. Thus hope is realized as we progress in day length and temperature change. On the lung cancer scale, we hope for good treatment outcomes and new treatment methods. Fortunately, outcomes are improving, sometimes dramatically as are methods. But the progression of seasonal change is neither smooth nor completely predictable. There will be uncertain days ahead. Similarly, as lung cancer survivors we will face disappointment and perhaps reversals. But like the season, treatment is a progression: a change over time. And the renewal of hope for survivors is the belief that progression toward success will continue.
My wish for all lung cancer survivors is the gift of life continued.
Stay the course.
I've survived a lot of medical treatment. The most sophisticated and creative was while in the care of an extraordinarily gifted, courageous and talented surgeon. We invited him and his wife to dinner to renew our acquaintance and review the bidding. The dinner was memorable.
I could launch into the details of my 8 surgical procedures performed by this brilliant man but that story is told elsewhere. Of more interest to this community is what are the indicators of brilliance in a surgeon? Unlike general medicine or oncology, surgical encounter time is brief. One can ask about reputation, but thoracic procedures are risky and outcomes are variable involving heart, lungs, vessels, transplants and a myriad of complex procedures to the engine compartment of the body. Using my surgeon as a model, it might be useful to develop a means test of thoracic surgical competence that a survivor might use to evaluate suitability during the span of a short pre-surgical consultation. Here is my list.
Is your surgeon friendly? Is this man or women one you’d enjoy having a coffee or a beer with? Does conversation flow easily? Does the surgeon respond to your elements of conversation? Does he or she listen? Do other practitioners or office staff enjoy being around him? A surgeon that is pleasant is likely to be a surgeon that is sympathetic, benevolent and a true believer of the tenants of the Hippocratic Oath.
Is your surgeon inquisitive? Surgery is a melding of art and science. The art is “what” to do and the science is “how” to do it. Thoracic surgeons are a small tribe that practice in a complex environment. When something new is discovered, your surgeon should be very interested in investigating it for application. If your surgeon already thinks all the “what” questions are answered, find another.
Is your surgeon respectful? In your pre-surgical consultation, you ought to feel like the important one. Your medical condition needs to be acknowledged as important and your feelings, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty should to be taken into account. If your surgeon doesn’t use your name or look at you or attempt to help you relax during the consultation, find another. If your surgeon makes a grand entrance, surrounded by a posse of assistants, and talks to them about your case, find another quickly!
Is your surgeon decisive? At the pre-surgical consult, there is one key decision to be made: operate or do not operate. This ought to be made then and there. If your surgeon feels the need to discuss your case with others, find another. There is so much uncertainty in lung cancer surgery and each encounter will require a decision. Your surgeon needs to come equipped for making decisions, alone.
Is your surgeon acutely intelligent? Compose a non-surgical question on the surgeon's interest or hobbies ahead of the consultation. Listen for passion and detail that indicates sincere interest and evidence of accomplishment. Intelligence starts with curiosity and leads to ability to assimilate knowledge and use it in cross functional ways. A surgeon with a photography interest would know depth of field (the f-stop setting on a camera) is analogous to layers in skin, tissue structure, and visual focus precision. Photography concepts relate to surgery yet it is a diverse field of intellectual pursuit. Avoid those who are interested only in surgery or who say they don’t have time for anything in their life but surgery.
We had a wonderful reunion made even more special by the attendance of my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. My daughter met my surgeon 15 years ago while I was near death. She is also a beneficiary of his skills. Ten years after my surgeries, I asked my surgeon to help find a skilled brain surgeon to remove my daughter’s complex meningioma. He moved heaven and earth to do so. Add compassion to my list.
Stay the course.
Now, long after the commotion of active treatment, my wife and I often share recollections. Martha is my caregiver and for more than 3 years of near constant therapy she held the long thin line. In doing so, she had to confront my anxiety, discomfort and fear. These were variable; the constant foe was my general irascibility towards medical treatment. Now a 12-year survivor, we both laugh at some of my antics. But during treatment, there was high drama to deal with.
It is not easy to watch someone you love encumbered by all manner of tubes and wires in intensive care. Nor is it pleasant to attend to the full-throttle roar of chemo-induced side effects. Moreover, there is recognition that the side effect bedlam will occur with the same progression and intensity a short time in the future. Add to that the burden of failed treatments and the inability to influence outcomes. These are the plight of the caregiver.
While in the throes of treatment, most appreciated were the little things Martha did for me. Discharged from hospital with a chest tube in my lower back, scratching my back was a godsend. I was beset with “taxol toes” and rubbing my feet with Aspercreme provided immense temporary relief. But most appreciated was her homemade chocolate mint chip ice cream. This was an effective counter to a waning appetite, enormous attitude boost, and a relished wonderful concoction.
There is a fundamental reality about treatment recollection: the patient and caregiver have vastly different memories of the same event. I find it useful to accept Martha’s version as a higher order truth for two reasons. She was an observer and not under duress, and I was normally at wits end totally undone by the experience.
This difference in perspective points to the essential role of the lung cancer caregiver—a steady hand in a sea of turmoil.
Stay the course.
Just reported is a Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Cornell University study showing but 5% of terminally ill cancer patients understand the gravity of their disease and prognosis. Moreover, only 23 percent of these had a discussion about life expectancy with their doctor.
At first pass, I questioned the validity of the percentages. They were so low they bordered on unbelievable. This had to be mainstream press sensationalism at work! Then I spoke with an expert, and she convinced me I was not a typical lung cancer patient. The fact that I read about my disease after diagnosis was a big tell. Many do not.
My education about lung cancer started the first night of my diagnostic hospital stay. The lesson delivered ⎯ a very pragmatic and frank discussion with my general practitioner. His words characterizing my prognosis were "slim odds." He didn't want me to give up but wanted to ensure I knew the enemy.
After discharge from my diagnosis hospital admission, I burned up the Google Search Engine reading everything I could about lung cancer. In 2004 there were not a lot of sources, but there were enough to scare the living daylights out of me. Research revealed a very low probability of living 5 years even with effective treatment. My bravery evaporated.
My wife recalls that time. She reminded that my inquisitive nature departed with bravery. Martha asked questions. These explored diagnosis, treatment possibilities, and prognosis. I mostly stared at the clock in the consultation room. Or tried to change the subject.
My oncologist was frank. He said even with successful surgery, I had high odds of reoccurrence. When tumors appeared after pneumonectomy, he was down to chemotherapy to combat my lung cancer. Chemotherapy would buy time but it wouldn’t eradicate. Time purchased allowed for CyberKnife technology to emerge that was a surer kill. But treatment opportunities were explored because Martha was persistent. After a year of surgical mayhem and two years of Taxol Carboplatin hardened with Tarceva, I was barely along for the ride.
Sure, I knew my prognosis and life expectancy probability but knowledge did not empower me; it empowered Martha. So maybe the study numbers are low because patients understand their dire straits. Maybe we know and are afraid to talk about it.
In case you are wondering, lung cancer is deadly. Mostly because it displays few symptoms and is often diagnosed at late stage. The treatment tool kit for late stage lung cancer is largely empty. Why? Now that is a good question; one deserving of academic study. I’ll start.
Let’s hypothesize that lung cancer is a self-induced disease ⎯ people give it to themselves. If this is true, why should society invest in new diagnostic or curative means? As a logical extension of the hypothesis, society should never invest in curing maladies that are self-induced. How is taxpayer funded research for HIV/AIDS by the National Institute of Health to the tune of $3 billion a year explained? It is self-induced. Some will assert that a proportion of HIV/AIDS patients get the affliction accidentally. Yes, and some proportion of lung cancer patients are never smokers. But, drug abuse is completely self-induced and it garners just over $1 billion in yearly research. In the same data year, lung cancer was allocated but $225 million. No research for self-induced hypothesis fails.
Let’s construct another hypothesis: society funds diagnostic and curative research for diseases that kill the most people. Seems reasonable. Scarce resources ought to flow to afflictions that take the most lives. Let’s examine the data. In 2012, HIV/AIDS claimed 12,963 deaths according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). In that same year, lung cancer killed 157,425!
Drug abuse is now anointed our national pandemic. Indeed prescription opioid overdose is “raging through the country.” CDC drug overdose deaths amounted to 38,538 in 2014 but in that year lung cancer deaths were 158,080. Lung cancer is our pandemic. It has been for a long time. The more-deaths-the-more-funding hypothesis is toast!
Frankly, I’m getting tired of the medical research community squandering precious dollars studying what cancer patients think, feel, or understand. What is far more relevant is how to find, fix, and finish lung cancer.
Stay the course.