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Uncertain Treatment Outcomes: A Baseball Model

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?

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.



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