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.

Like a Freight Train

Sometimes, you can see cancer coming.  What I mean is that when we sign up for that mammogram, or that PSA blood test, there has to be some tiny little part of us that says, “Ok, this time it’s my turn.  This time I’m the one who’s going to get the call.”  Sometimes the cancer sneaks up on us—that nagging little cough that makes us want to—suddenly and belatedly—quit smoking.  Or that little bit of blood in the stool that we’d rather think is a hemorrhoid, or that lump in the neck that doesn’t go away even when our doctor treats us for the strep throat that we know we don’t have.  But sometimes, as it happened to my patients yesterday, that cancer hits us like a freight train.  Just flattens us and leaves us in fragments, speechless in surprise and terror.  And when that train hits, we know in an instant that life will never be the same again.

I had two of the freight train kind of patients yesterday.  The first was a man in his 70’s, previously healthy, an avid stamp collector.  One day in August, he suddenly had difficulty finding his words.  A CT scan done without contrast dye showed no stroke or bleed in his brain, and he was sent home from the emergency room.  His wife persisted with the primary care doctor—“My husband is just not right!” she said, and last month an MRI was ordered which revealed a  large ugly looking brain tumor, and the patient was taken to surgery.  The pathology returned as glioblastoma multiforme, the most aggressive type of brain cancer.  He was seen in outpatient oncology clinic by a young neuro-oncologist, just out of his training. By the time the patient came to me, every shred of hope was gone.  The man, still having difficulty with his speech, told me that the doctor said that at most, he would live a year, if he chose treatment, a few months if he did not.  He said that the doctor told him that the tumor would spread like a spider web over his brain, and that he would lose all function.  The patient cried when he told me this.

The second patient was a very fit man in his early sixties, a retired school teacher who had surfed and been a life guard all his life.  In July, he had a surfing accident (his wife said, “Can you believe it?  He surfed some of the greatest waves in the world and he wiped out in two feet of water here at home.”)  He broke his collarbone in three places, which required surgery to repair.  His pain got worse however, and he started to have back pain.  Spine films showed a compression fracture, also thought to be related to the accident.  As this tan, fit, athletic man began to seek more and more narcotics for his pain, an MRI of the spine was obtained, which showed the bones to be brittle and riddled with tumors.  Yesterday the biopsy of his sacroiliac area came back positive for multiple myeloma, a disease of plasma cells in the bone marrow which destroys the bones that cultivate it.  In an instant, this nice couple’s dreams of a happy retirement were shattered.

When we first moved to the West Coast, I was offered two very different jobs.  In one practice, I was to be the person that rotated through six different outpatient facilities, covering the regular doctor’s vacations.  I would see the patients for consultation, and perhaps treatment planning, but would never see them through their treatment or in follow up.  The other job was a hospital based practice where I would be the director of the department and have longitudinal care of the patients.  I chose the second, of course, because being the linear task oriented person that I am, I could not conceive of not seeing each patient through from start to finish to follow up.

I see things differently now, twenty years later.  I have a calling in life.  I want to be there when that freight train hits.  I know I can put the pieces back together, and I know that when that shattered patient leaves my office, for the first time in hours, or days, he will be able to notice the sun shining in our Southern California sky, and taste a faint flavor of salt on the warm breeze flowing from the Pacific. In turn, I will have the deep satisfaction of knowing that I did something good that particular day.  And that, actually, is quite enough.