In Praise of Angelina

I have always been one of Angelina Jolie’s biggest fans.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences saw fit to reward her 1999 performance in “Girl Interrupted” with an Oscar, but I wasn’t well and truly smitten until the second Lara Croft Tombraider movie was released in 2003.  In that film, Jolie, who performs her own stunts, is seen galloping on a dark horse while spinning a heavy shotgun from side to side to shoot alternating targets.  And she is riding SIDESADDLE.  If you don’t believe this, have a look here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tz1lCcs9tac  In the Lara Croft movies, she is the epitome of a strong, athletic, intelligent and self assured woman.  It may not seem like much, but I granted Miss Jolie a high honor indeed—in 2004 I named a dark, agile and fast deerhound puppy after her, the soon to be champion Caerwicce’s Lady Croft, aka “Angelina”.

 

In the years that followed the Lara Croft movies, Angelina Jolie went on to surprise her public in more ways than one.  The girl who initially achieved notoriety for wearing a vial of her second husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood gained a different type of fame when she adopted a Cambodian child, and subsequently became a respected ambassador for the United Nations.  She has become well known for her humanitarian efforts, devoting as much time to improving the lives of refugee children as she does to her own career.  Recently, she has added the titles of author, director, and Mrs. Brad Pitt to an already impressive resume.

 

But perhaps the biggest surprise of all came two years ago, when she went public in the New York Times with the revelation that she is positive for the breast cancer gene BRCA1. In a moving statement, she wrote of her difficult decision, at age 37, to undergo bilateral prophylactic mastectomies and reconstructive surgeries in the hope of staving off the cancers that took her mother, her grandmother and her aunt.  She was clear and concise, reasonable and dispassionate in her account.   Not only did she raise awareness of the heritable form of breast cancer, she gave courage to all women facing the challenge of a mastectomy.  If one of the worlds most beautiful and sexy women could undergo such surgery in the glare of the celebrity spotlight and come out looking stronger and even more beautiful, so could some of the rest of us.

 

Today she has done it again.  In a New York Times article entitled “Diary of a Surgery” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/24/opinion/angelina-jolie-pitt-diary-of-a-surgery.html?ref=opinion&_r=0 ), she reveals that she has recently undergone removal of her ovaries and fallopian tubes to prevent ovarian cancer, the disease that killed her mother.  She describes precisely the terror she felt when informed that some recent blood tests were equivocal, the dreadful anticipation of the results of a PET/CT scan and the realization that now, at age 39, she has entered menopause.  But she also describes the relief she felt once she had made a decision to go ahead with the preventive surgery: “I know my children will never have to say, ‘Mom died of ovarian cancer’.”

There’s bravery and then there’s true courage and grit.  It’s one thing to perform gymnastics while swinging from the rafters of the Croft estate, or to shoot a rifle off the back of a galloping horse.  It’s quite another to write clearly and objectively the story of being diagnosed with a genetic mutation, and of the careful informed decisions she made to minimize her risks, while at the same time admitting that her decisions were not necessarily the right ones for everyone.  As Angelina says, “Knowledge is power.”  We owe her thanks for sharing hers with us.

 

The Curbside Consultation

Recently a friend of my husband’s in San Diego had a mammogram which showed some suspicious microcalcifications in her right breast.  She underwent a stereotactic biopsy which revealed ductal carcinoma in situ, the earliest form of breast cancer also known as Stage 0 breast cancer.  This type of cancer is non-invasive and does not metastasize, however, if untreated it can progress or recur as a more serious type of breast cancer, so at the very least excision of the abnormal area is indicated, and in some cases radiation and/or mastectomy are necessary.  My husband asked if I would speak to her regarding her breast cancer, and somewhat reluctantly I said yes.

 

Why reluctantly, you might ask.  Isn’t that the nice thing to do?  I said to my husband, “I think it’s a mistake to do consultations over the phone.  I have no access to the mammograms or pathology report, and I cannot examine her.  These things are important to have and do to give someone an informed opinion about her case.”  He said, “But can’t you just talk to her a little bit and recommend a surgeon, and maybe give her a bit of information about radiation therapy?”  I agreed to do it.  A few days later we connected by phone.

 

Having practiced in San Diego for twenty one years, and having a major interest in breast cancer, I know every surgeon in San Diego and Riverside counties who specializes in breast cancer.  Likewise, every radiation oncologist and medical oncologist.  I am a virtual referral encyclopedia—tell me where you live and I will tell you where to go.   In this case I recommended the surgeon whom I would choose to operate on ME, if I had breast cancer.  Same thing for radiation oncology.  I did this for my husband’s friend, and we discussed her case at length.  Because of her relatively young age, excision alone was a bad choice, so we discussed the pros and cons of excision plus radiation versus simple mastectomy with or without reconstruction.  At the end of the conversation she thanked me, and then mentioned that there were actually TWO areas in the breast that were biopsied and were positive, and they were not particularly close together.

 

That little fact, which I would have known if I had had her pathology report and her mammograms in front of me, changes everything.  If a woman has multifocal disease, there is a good probability that she may be better off removing the breast.   I backtracked and covered that point, but I worried that I had made an anxiety provoking situation much worse by confusing a new breast cancer patient.  In the end, she sought the care of an excellent breast cancer surgeon, and I know she will be fine.  But I have the lingering feeling that in trying to do the nice thing, I did the wrong thing.

 

Think of this when you stop your doctor friend on the street to ask about a friend or relative who has recently been diagnosed with cancer.  Curbside consultations do no one any favors.  If you or a friend or relative need an opinion, get an INFORMED opinion—present to the consulting physician with your history, your radiology, your lab work, your pathology and your body to be examined.  Then, and only then, you will be assured that the recommendations that you receive are the ones you should truly follow.  It could save your life.

Siskel and Ebert

I have always loved the movies.  Like every grade school kid watching reruns, I cried when Bambi’s mother died, and when starry eyed Judy Garland clicked her heels and said, “There’s no place like home!”  But when the big budget films hit the screen in my early pre-teen years—Ben Hur, Camelot and Lawrence of Arabia, I was irretrievably hooked.  Sitting in a dark theater, I could escape from actual or imagined troubles.  Some people prefer live theater, but for me it was always the big screen, where I could pretend to be Guinevere as Lancelot leaned in for a kiss, or Holly Golightly, or Cleopatra, up close, more real than in real life.  By high school I was reading the film critic’s reviews in our local paper, and by college I had my favorites.  Pauline Kael was far too esoteric for me—my “go to guys” were Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert with their trademark “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”

I was channel surfing last night and I just happened upon CNN which was airing a documentary film about Roger Ebert, his career and his struggle with cancer called “Life Itself” from his memoir of the same title.  I had been aware that Ebert had been battling head and neck cancer for years before his death but I was not well versed in the details of his illness.  Roger Ebert was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma of the thyroid in 2002, typically a rather low grade cancer treated primarily with surgery. Unfortunately he was unlucky and the cancer recurred, ultimately necessitating removal of his lower jaw with subsequent loss of his larynx, and his ability to speak and swallow.  What was unique about Mr. Ebert was that unlike many public figures, especially those in the visual media whose jobs sometimes depend on facial appearances, he chose not only to go public with his illness, but to ENGAGE his many fans and followers in his day to day struggles via his website, his blog, and his Twitter account.  He allowed Steve James, the documentary filmmaker, to film him not only on his best days, but also on his worst.  He smiled and joked for the camera nearly immediately after his radical mandibulectomy and neck dissections, even as he was being suctioned for the secretions which if left untended would choke him.  His wife Chaz, his stepchildren and grandchildren were equally generous, at a time when the family was undergoing much pain and hardship.  He clearly had his demons and his days where he wanted to quit, but ultimately he was buoyed by the support he received from not only his fans, but from directors and actors he had at times panned.  To see Martin Scorcese pause to wipe a tear on camera when discussing his friend was a window into what this person meant to his friends and peers.

What I had forgotten, and was reminded of while watching the documentary, was that Ebert was not the only member of the Siskel and Ebert team who suffered from cancer.   Gene Siskel was operated on for glioblastoma, a malignant brain tumor, in the spring of 1998.  Only his wife knew of the diagnosis—he chose not to even tell his children.  He was back at work nearly immediately, and only when he became symptomatic again in early 2009, did he request a leave of absence from his show.  He died of complications of a second surgery to deal with recurrence in February 1999.  His friend and colleague Roger Ebert only learned the truth about the disease on a Friday, just days before he died, and had planned to see him on Monday.  Siskel died that weekend.  Ebert and his wife were devastated that they had not known, and had not been able to convey the love that was in their hearts.  I can only imagine how his other friends and family felt.

In my career, I have seen it both ways.   I have had patients who have their entire families with them for each treatment, who have written books about their illness, who have blogged about it, who have made public appearances and who have been pillars of support groups.   I have also had patients who were absolutely adamant that no one, sometimes not even spouses or children, should know about their cancer and treatment.  The reasons have been many—fear of unemployment, fear of upsetting loved ones, fear of being seen as weak or ill, and in one case, a minister who feared that his congregation would see his illness as punishment for prior sins.  But the common denominator was always one thing:  fear.

My patients generally have made up their own minds about what to reveal and to whom.  I respect their decisions and support them in whatever way that I can.  But when they do ask me, I always tell them that it is better not to take this particular journey alone.  Not every movie has a well-executed plot or a happy ending.  But as Siskel and Ebert would always say, there is joy in the characters you meet and love along the way.

Do Dogs Know They are Dying?

Labor Day, 2006, is a day I will never forget.  It was a gorgeous day here in San Diego—bright, sunny and nearly 90 degrees.  I decided it was a perfect day to give the dogs an outdoor bath.  At the time, we had Valentine, the matriarch at nearly twelve years old, Izzy who was four, and the two young  ones Magic and Angelina who were two years old.  We started with Valentine—at her age she’d had a little problem with urinary incontinence, and she needed her bath the most.  We knew that the coiled up hose sitting in the sun on that hot afternoon had enough warm water to bathe her in, so my daughter and I mixed shampoo in a bucket of hot water from the kitchen sink, and just outside the garage, we soaped her up.  She seemed to be enjoying herself, a nice soapy massage on a beautiful day, and then a quick rinse.  As I turned to get the towel to dry her, I heard my daughter say loudly and in a panic, “VAL, DON’T FALL DOWN!”  I turned back around and she was gone, down on the wet pavement, eyes blank.  She never felt a thing.   I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on the driveway with my dead dog, brushing her hair until it dried and the crematorium people came to take her away.  Needless to say, no one else got a bath that day.

I once read an essay by an oncologist who said that she hoped that she would die of cancer.   I was baffled by this, because my personal preference would be to go suddenly, of a heart attack or a massive stroke, preferably while doing something I enjoy.  But her reasoning was quite clear:  she said that with cancer, when you know that your days on earth are numbered, you still have time—time to do the things you always wanted to do, time to say good bye, time to make amends.  This has actually been true for most of my patients—when they know that they are diagnosed with a life threatening illness, their priorities change.  If they have the means, they live the lives they always wanted to live, for as long as they are able.  They remember, they forgive and they forget.  The trivialities of daily life become unimportant, except insofar as they struggle to get through them.   Many become the person they always wanted to be, and I hope that if this is my fate, I have the grace to do the same.

Today we took old Magic to the veterinary cardiologist.  Magic is my eldest deerhound—a big male at 120 pounds, and nearly ten years old.  The last two weeks have been hard for him—we’ve had thunderstorms and he has always been afraid of thunder.  In desperation over his anxiety last week I called his vet for a prescription for a tranquilizer.  It worked temporarily, but on Tuesday we had strangers in the house and he was panting, salivating, and his heart was beating far too rapidly.  I laid a hand on his chest and I knew instantly that his big old heart was failing.  Today the diagnostic echocardiogram confirmed what I already knew—that my big guy has dilated cardiomyopathy, and that he is in congestive heart failure.  We started medication immediately, and I am hoping for a few more weeks, or a few more months with this grand old man who is, as my husband says, “the dog who never did anything wrong.”

Do dogs, like humans, know when they are dying?  I don’t think so.  And in fact, for their sake, I hope not.  Unlike us, they have nothing to apologize for, and perhaps their next meal, or a walk in the park, or in a dream a wild chase after a highland stag, followed by a soft bed and the touch of a human hand is all that they hope for and dream about.  As Magic slowly made his way out of the van today onto solid ground, he was greeted warmly by Queen, Quicksilver and little Yoda.  I can no longer promise him a life beyond his years, but I promised him today that every day from now on will be the best day I can give him—lots of treats, a comfortable place to rest, and with all certainty, no more baths.

Stuart Scott’s Acceptance Speech

Sometimes I feel like what I have to say isn’t very important and after watching a video clip of Stuart Scott accepting the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance tonight on ESPN, I think you might prefer to hear from him.  Background:  Stuart Scott was diagnosed with cancer of the appendix in 2007 and has been battling the disease for seven years.  Jimmy V, or Jimmy Valvano was the head basketball coach at North Carolina State, who died in 1993 of cancer but was known both in sports and his personal life for his slogan “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”  According to Wikipedia, Jimmy V’s tombstone reads, “Take time every day to laugh, to think, to cry.”

If you have time, continue to watch this video to see the clip about Scott’s enrollment in a clinical trial at Johns Hopkins, and then just as amazing, Michael Sam’s emotional speech about tolerance, acceptance and growing up “different” as he accepts the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.  These two guys say it all, so please watch:  http://espn.go.com/video/clip?id=11225895

More about my experiences in Dermatology tomorrow.

Love and Loyalty From the Souls of Dogs

“Such sadness and endearing and abiding love…”  Fran

I am by nature a “right brain” person—despite my training in science and medicine, I prefer paintings and photographs to words and mathematical constructs.  Over the past two years of writing this blog, I have resisted on many occasions the urge to add pictures to this website, despite the fact that I possess wonderful photographs of the things that I write about—my family, my dogs, my horses and my patients.  I am constantly taking pictures—I have chronicled my entire life in photographs from my first Kodak Brownie and I will continue to do so.  But I started writing again, thirty eight years after graduating from college with an English degree, to see if I could “describe” rather than “illustrate” the events in my life which have had an impact.  I want to write stories that leave a little bit to the imagination, to my readers’ right brains—stories that can be read out loud.

For the past few months I have been following the saga of Roo on Facebook.  Roo is an Ibizan hound owned by the artist Nan Kilgore Little. Affectionately known by their owners as “beezers”, this breed’s history dates back 5,000 years to the times of the Egyptian pharaohs.  The erect ears and tall lean bodies of these hounds are depicted in hieroglyphs in the tombs of Ptolemy, Nefermat, Mereku and Tutankhamen.  Think of the god Anubis, Protector of the Dead, and you will have a good visual image of the head of this hound.  Brought to the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain by the Phoenicians in 800 B.C., these dogs have hunted to put food on the table of their masters for centuries.

Roo turned sixteen years old a few weeks ago, an extraordinary old age for a large sighthound. You can see it in the pictures—the eyes, once keen are now cloudy and the strongly muscled hindquarters have wasted.  The bone structure appears more prominent, and yet more delicate at the same time. The ears are nearly transparent, and beautifully veined.  Nan started to post pictures of him on his daily walks, interacting with the other dogs in the household, and resting on his favorite pillow—pictures which have inspired a legion of Facebook followers who clearly feel privileged to watch the “old man” in his waning days and to take that last journey with him and his loving family.

The last forty-eight hours have been tough. Old Roo, with his brightly colored bandanna and his watchful countenance has stopped eating and has taken to his bed, his head resting on his favorite pillow.  He is not in pain, but he is very tired.  No more walking in the Wild Yard and no more jumping over the Big Tree.  His best friend, an Australian cattle dog named Barkool, has taken up watch and rarely leaves his side.  Barkool is neither elegant, nor particularly beautiful and his squat body is a contrast to the lean and classical Ibizan.  He is Sancho Panza to Roo’s Don Quixote.  He is the friend we wish we all had.

My Facebook friends love dogs as do Nan’s and as a result, we frequently feel compelled to put up photographs of abused, starving and abandoned canines in need of rescue, or dogs beaten and bloodied in the service of man’s cruelest whims.  But rarely, in these hastily posted pictures, we see a glimpse of life as it can and should be.  Yesterday Nan posted a photograph of Roo and Barkool.  Roo is wearing his blue bandana and is wrapped the cocoon of his softest blanket, one covered by multicolored hearts.  Barkool’s head is tucked under Roo’s chin as a pillow and his stocky body is still as can be.  His eyes show apprehension, and resignation at the same time.  He is, above all, present for his buddy.

Sometimes friends and families of my patients are uncomfortable visiting their loved ones after a diagnosis of cancer, or even more so at the end of life.  They ask me, “What should I say?” or “What can I do?” The answer is revealed in Nan’s picture of Roo and Barkool:  without fanfare, without words, without tears, just be there.

I am Passionate About…

A few days ago I decided that since I have been officially retired for two months, it was time to change my profile on the LinkedIn social network.  After all, the purpose of that network is to link business and professional people to potential opportunities and ideas.  I needed to let contacts know that I am no longer with the University where I practiced for the last seven years, while at the same time, just labeling myself “retired” seemed far too final.  LinkedIn, as it turns out, has a “prompt” on each member’s profile page which encourages us to say succinctly what we’re all about.  The prompt is “I am passionate about…”  It took a few moments for my brain to dispel romantic visions of the great love stories of all time–Catherine and Heathcliff?  Zhivago and Lara? Scarlett and Rhett?  The realization dawned on me that what LinkedIn was alluding to was professional and not physical.

What I am passionate about, and remain so despite the significant burn out that led to early retirement, is community based cancer care.  Contrary to what I believed during my residency, when I referred to patients being admitted by LMD’s (local medical doctors) from St. Elsewhere, over the course of a long career I have come to believe that most cancer patients are served best by being treated in their own communities.  Certainly there will always be patients whose presentations, diseases and complications merit immediate referral to a tertiary care center, however most patients with typical presentations of common cancers are also people who have jobs, who have children and/or elderly parents to care for, who have concerns about the financial burdens of treatment, and for many elderly patients concerns about transportation to and from treatment.  Our job, as community based cancer specialists, is to make sure that the treatment being provided measures up to the standards of care and safety that we have learned from our colleagues in major academic practices.  In communities with limited resources, this can be challenging.

For physicians and community leaders interested in creating a community cancer center the key ingredients are simple. First, you need a mission.  Decide what the goals of your center will be and write them down.  Create a statement.  An example could be:  “Our mission is to deliver medically and technologically advanced cancer care to residents of this community in a supportive environment close to home.”  These goals will be your guiding light as you proceed.  Second, you need a building.  Although many of the functions of a tertiary cancer center can be spread out into the community, we are not yet at a point where we can deliver “virtual cancer treatment.” Many pre-existing buildings can be modified to accommodate chemotherapy and even radiation therapy, at a fraction of the cost of new construction. Third, you need equipment.  Specifically, in order to deliver radiation therapy you need a multipurpose linear accelerator, capable of delivering highly focused stereotactic radiation as well as standard of care intensity modulated radiation therapy and superficial electron therapy for skin cancers.  Although it makes a good PR campaign to have the latest “sexy” name in equipment, much of this highly specialized equipment is not designed for a general practice. You will need infusion equipment and likely some laboratory equipment.    Fourth, you need highly trained and certified personnel to administer chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and particularly in the case of radiation, to insure quality. Fifth, it is my opinion that community cancer centers benefit greatly from affiliation with university practices in terms of access to clinical trials, to tumor boards, to advanced pathological diagnosis and to the expertise of specialists in each disease site.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need the support of the community. To paraphrase Hillary Rodham Clinton who said, “It takes a village to raise a child”, I would say that it takes the dedication of a community to create a successful cancer center.

The future of cancer treatment, indeed of medicine in general, is unclear however we must not lose sight of the fact that patients are more than their cancer diagnosis, their chemotherapy recipe or their radiation dose prescription.  We need to keep them in their jobs, with their families, functioning as normally as possible under difficult circumstances, throughout their treatment and afterwards.  My own experience has shown that this is achievable in a personalized setting in the patient’s community.  That is what I am passionate about.

This piece is condensed from a longer talk I gave in Jamaica in October 2013.  For the full transcript feel free to email me and I will send it on.

Heisenberg and Your Prostate

Uncertainty Principle:  A principle in quantum mechanics holding that increasing the accuracy of measurement of one observable quantity increases the uncertainty with which another conjugate quantity may be known.

Perhaps it is because I just got back from Albuquerque, a city which has become like a second home to me, that I have Heisenberg on my mind. For the one or two of you out there who are not “Breaking Bad” fans, “Heisenberg” is the name that mild mannered chemistry teacher Walter White assumes when he decides to manufacture pharmaceutical quality methamphetamine after being diagnosed with Stage III lung cancer. His motivation is to be able to leave his pregnant wife and son affected by cerebral palsy a little cash when he dies.  The evolution of Walter from upstanding high school teacher to ruthless drug lord unfolds over six seasons where moral ambiguity is the coin of the realm—in uncertainty principle terms, the more single mindedly he pursues his meth business, the fuzzier his personal ethics become.

Recently I have begun to think of the dilemma of PSA testing and the diagnosis and progression of prostate cancer in terms of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of men who have a rising PSA level post prostatectomy.  For many men faced with the choice of surgery versus radiation therapy, the selection revolves around the perception of certainty.  In medical school we are given the mantra, “To cut is to cure!”   Many patients choose surgery because of that perception—the ability of the surgeon after the procedure to say, “We got it all” and the satisfying thud of that post op PSA falling to zero.  Life is as it should be, the offending organ is gone, and the PSA is the definitive proof of cure.  In my own career I have pointed out countless times that if a man wants it black and white, cut and dried as it were, he may be more satisfied with the surgical option, since the slow fall in the PSA level post radiation therapy, with its attendant subtle blips and variations can be maddening to the patient, his family, and of course the attending physician.

But what of the patient whose PSA post prostatectomy does not fall to an undetectable level?  Or the patient whose PSA becomes unmeasurable, but months or years later starts to rise again?  On the one hand, our ability to measure serum PSA levels as a proxy for prostate cancer still lurking in the body has improved to the point of being able to measure values as small as hundredths of a nanogram per milliliter of blood.  We call this the supersensitive PSA assay and we accept this as proof that the cancer is there, somewhere, waiting to recur.  But what this supersensitive test cannot tell us is exactly WHERE those cancer cells are.  Neither bone scan, nor CAT scan, nor Prostascint imaging nor ultrasound is likely to give us the answer.  So what do we do?  As radiation oncologists we offer the patient the best we have, treatment to the “prostate bed”—the area where the prostate used to be—and sometimes the adjacent lymph nodes.  We know statistically that over a period of years, large groups of patients who were treated for their rising PSA with radiation do better than those who were not, but sadly this tells us nothing about the individual patient.  And the individual must decide for himself whether to take the leap of faith, and the side effects of one treatment compounded with another, that the cancer cells are still localized and that the radiation will kill them.

As a clinician treating patients with rising PSA’s post prostatectomy, I wait with bated breath for the first PSA after radiation to the prostate bed.  The patient is equally anxious—that stark simple but highly precise number is the measure by which we judge success or failure of the treatment.  But in focusing on the PSA, we often forget the obvious—that a number, even a highly precise number, is just that and nothing more.  What the patient will die from, and when, remains uncertain.  If I can help my patients remember that, and go and live their life with zest and satisfaction, then I have done them a real service.

Two Hundred and Nine Short Essays Later

 

Here I am in Boston, on the eve of my very first writer’s conference, feeling a bit like an imposter.  After all, the extent of my writing so far has been this blog, apart from thousands of histories, physical exams and treatment plans over the last thirty-nine years since starting medical school.  It occurred to me that someone might actually want to know what it is that I write about.  And then it occurred to me that I had never actually thought about it.  So I did, and this is what I came up with.

 

WHAT I WRITE ABOUT:

Cancer                                                                                                                           Radiation Therapy                                                                                                                 Dogs                                                                                                                                   Cats                                                                                                                                     Horses                                                                                                                                   Being a mother                                                                                                                         My kids                                                                                                                                 Travel                                                                                                                                    My father                                                                                                                               My mother                                                                                                                             Being a doctor                                                                                                                         Life

WHAT I AM TRYING TO SAY ABOUT LIFE

Cancer patients inspire me and motivate me                                                                       I’d like to explain a few things about cancer                                                                         I’d like to explain a few things about radiation therapy                                                     Cancer is evil and is not selective and makes me sad                                                 Cancer patients can be funny and they also make me laugh                                   Sometimes people do really stupid things when it comes to cancer treatment         Sometimes simple people can be heroes                                                                         Dogs are good therapy for me, my cancer patients, and my kids                                     Ditto on cats                                                                                                                       Horses are beautiful, liberating, dangerous and always expensive                                     You can be a mother AND a doctor and it’s going to be very hard                                     Your kids will forgive your shortcomings                                                                            Your kids will make fun of you                                                                                           Your kids will be successful if you EXPECT them to be and don’t harass them              Travel is enlightening and sometimes difficult and sometimes funny                                    My surgeon father is both an inspiration and a source of extreme annoyance                       My mother had a hard life and a hard death, despite appearances                               There’s always someone worse off than you                                                                   There’s always something to hope for

 

WHAT I AM TRYING TO SAY ABOUT BEING A DOCTOR AND ABOUT MEDICINE

Examine your patients—it’s important                                                                               Think for yourself and follow your gut instinct                                                                Beware of templates.  They tempt us to cheat                                                                     The Rules of the House of God still apply                                                                      Doctors make mistakes.                                                                                                       Be very selective about who you hire and set a good example for them                             Be the captain of the ship                                                                                                     Try not to whine, even if you fail                                                                             Communicate with your referring doctors and with your patients                                     Take the time and make the time                                                                                         Learn to speak slowly and clearly in layman’s terms                                                           Try not to say no, and never say “never”                                                                             DO NOT DROP THE BALL when dealing with cancer patients                                           And finally, answer your goddamned phone calls

Did I leave anything out?

A Different Kind of Mask

“I want them to live again to the point where pain becomes art.”

Lawrence Durrell,  “Justine”

I have always loved masks.  Near sighted likely from birth, a fact which was discovered significantly later, I never minded stumbling around our neighborhood on Halloween, my already deficient depth perception further stunted by my Bugs Bunny mask.  To don a mask was a chance to become someone else,  and as I grew older my disguises became more exotic—a gypsy fortune teller with gold hoop earrings in high school, a Turkish harem girl in college.  My imagination, fueled by the old stories of the Venetian Carnivale dating back to 1162, knew no bounds, and I secretly dreamed of a masked ball where I would glide gracefully and soundlessly, recognizing and being recognized by a handsome prince, by touch and scent alone.

 

In 2002 I took the occasion of my daughter’s graduation from high school as an opportunity for us to visit Venice, and more specifically, the mask shop known as La Bottega dei Mascareri at the base of the famous Rialto Bridge where a lively market persists to this day.  Elizabeth Barrett Browning may have been speaking metaphorically when she said, “the soul’s Rialto hath its merchandise,” but I was subject to a more literal interpretation.  I wanted to buy a mask from the famous brothers Sergio and Massimo Boldrin, who fashion papier mache masks in the old Venetian tradition.  I picked out a good one, made by Massimo himself, and given the history it depicts—perfect for a doctor.

 

The mask is larger than my face and flat, hand painted with a crackle glaze to look very old, and it pictures a man in medieval clothing dancing around a bonfire,  wearing the peculiar bird beaked mask known to physicians of the plague years.  The beaks were stuffed with medicinal herbs thought to ward off the dread disease.  In just one scene, the mask depicts the horror of bubonic plague—the bird beaked man, the fire to burn the contaminated bodies and clothing, the “ring around the rosie” cheeks of the afflicted.  With some difficulty, I brought my prize home in a suitcase, only to find that it gave me nightmares.  Today it sits on a bookshelf in the study off our garage.   I can’t have it in the house.

 

My patients with head and neck cancer are all too familiar with the concept of the mask, but for them the mask has a different significance.  Fashioned of a material called Aquaplast, the mask starts as a thick sheet of perforated plastic.  Warmed in a hot water bath, the material becomes soft and pliable, and is stretched over the cancer patient’s head and shoulders where it shape shifts to appear like a woman’s fish net stocking, but without the softness.  The mask hardens to become a rigid immobilization device which is bolted to the treatment table.  In my field, precision is everything and the mask, custom made for each patient, allows the radiation oncologist to accurately target the cancer while sparing critical structures such as the spinal cord and the eyes.  Not for the claustrophobic, the mask is a temporary prison for seven weeks of daily treatment.  At the end of treatment, each patient is offered the opportunity to take his or her own mask home.  Most actually do.

 

Today at the biannual Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Cancer Symposium in Scottsdale, AZ, I saw something quite extraordinary.  In order to assist patients financially with these cancers, an organization out of Washington DC called 911 4 HNC mounted an exhibition called “Courage Unmasked”  (www.courageunmasked.org).  Cookie Kerxton, an artist who was treated for head and neck cancer herself enlisted other artists to transform radiation masks into works of art.  The results, several of which are on exhibit at the meeting, are objects of exceptional beauty, turning human suffering into inspiration and hope for others.

 

At the meeting, volunteers were handing out free posters depicting forty two of these beautiful masks.  When I get home, I will have my poster framed and I will hang it in the room where I examine my head and neck cancer patients.  I am hoping that the bright colors of the beautiful masks will lessen their fear, and transform their pain.  There is indeed great progress in the treatment of their cancers.