On The Road Again

On the road again
Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things that I may never see again,
And I can’t wait to get on the road again.  Willie Nelson

 

If someone had told me even ten years ago that I would retire young and become an itinerant radiation oncologist I would have thought he had lost his mind.  As the career medical director of community based cancer centers, I was used to running the show.  And as the saying goes, I ran a “tight ship.”  Consultations were performed and documented in a timely fashion, day of the request if the situation was urgent, or within a few days if not.  The patients were given time to think about their treatment, but simulations could be done the same day as the consultation, or as soon as the patient agreed to treatment, and the new start times were never more than a week away. Patients were seen every week, or more frequently if needed.  I had the best team of radiation therapists, physicists, nurses and front office people that anyone could ever ask for.  But in early 2014, I like to say I retired.  But the truth is, I quit.

Articles about physician burnout are legion, and I have avoided adding to that literature in this blog. The truth of the matter is that we, as radiation oncologists, are a very privileged group.  We are privy to the most intimate details of our patients’ lives; we practice in a highly technical and ever changing environment which challenges us to be constant and consistent learners; our hours are regular and we are very well paid as a medical specialty.  And most importantly, we cure cancer.  What could be better?  But after thirty years in the field, I was tired.  2013 was a terrible year for me—in December of 2012 I lost a close friend, Catherine, and then my little dog Jack, and then in January my mother, and shortly after that my work partner Dr. William Spanos, the best colleague and friend a physician could ever hope for.  And in between, some very beloved patients who I had followed and treated for years.  I was done.

But a calling is a calling, and somehow, between the enchanted mountains of New Mexico and the healing hours spent on horseback and with my dogs, and the otherworldly sunsets and the pleasures of growing a vegetable garden, I needed to get back to doing what I do best—helping cancer patients.  So here I am, a “locum tenens” radiation oncologist, working for an agency, going where I am needed, for a few days, or a few weeks at a time.  On Sunday night I “saddled up” the old Suburban and headed to Las Cruces, NM to provide a little relief to the solo practitioner stationed there.

Today I saw an elderly woman who had just been diagnosed with locally advanced and metastatic lung cancer.  Despite the effects of her disease—weight loss, shortness of breath and pain—I could see that she had been and still is a beautiful woman.  I can’t cure her—no one can.  But I could promise her that I could make her breathing a little easier, and relieve the painful metastases in her lumbar spine. As I sat with the patient and her husband, I knew with certainty that I no longer had to be “in charge” or command my own practice.  I knew that I could help her.  And I knew, beyond question, that I had begun to love my profession again. For that I am very grateful.

In Memoriam–Dr. Michael Davidson

In 1994, I was working at my first radiation oncology job in San Diego at Grossmont Hospital when I came into work to hear disturbing news.  One of my colleagues in medical oncology, a compassionate man known for his gentle nature, had stayed late at the Cancer Center the evening before to finish up paperwork.  With his back to his ever open door, he sat at his desk never once considering that he was in danger.  A disgruntled relative of a former patient surprised him from behind, and beat him viciously over the head and body causing broken bones and contusions, and leaving him for dead.  He managed to call for help, and he survived after spending two weeks in the hospital.  He returned to his practice of treating cancer patients after a long convalescence—after all, it was his calling in life.  He died many years later, suddenly at age 69.  I do not know if that beating years earlier contributed to his early death but the knowledge of it certainly changed my life.  I worked late, and was alone in many offices at night after that, but I remained cautious and vigilant about security, never again taking safety for granted.

Yesterday I got a hasty text message from my daughter, who is a second year internal medicine resident at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.  She told me that a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a fellow Harvard teaching hospital, had been shot at work and that the hospital was on lock down.  She didn’t know how much was in the news yet, but wanted to let me know since I had trained and worked at these hospitals.  I was as shocked as she was, but I should not have been.  The doctor, Michael Davidson, was a highly respected young cardiovascular surgeon—a rising star in his career, and a husband with three children at home.  The gunman, having sought out Dr. Davidson, fired two shots at close range before retreating to an exam room and taking his own life.  Dr. Davidson was given immediate medical attention by his colleagues at his own hospital, one of the top trauma centers in Boston.  He died of his injuries late last night.  As it turns out, the shooter, Stephen Pasceri, had no history of violence and his gun was licensed.  But he did have a history of dissatisfaction with the “medical system” and sadly his mother had been a patient of Dr. Davidson’s, and had passed away two months ago.  Not much has been said in the news about her, but such is the nature of cardiovascular surgery—these doctors do not operate on healthy patients and not every outcome is successful.

When I visited the Hope Institute in Jamaica in 2013, I saw many patients dying of cancer, without the benefits of affordable chemotherapy, state of the art radiation therapy and even without a readily available supply of morphine.  But I did not see anger, in the patients or their relatives, who were cared for under the loving guidance of Dr. Dingle Spence.   Here in America, quite the opposite is true: we have come to believe that every disease is curable, that every outcome should be positive, and that death, in the words of Dylan Thomas, shall have no dominion.  Most of us, however do not take to the wards fully armed, looking for our doctors. Today I am in despair for his wife, for his children, for the surgical residents he would have taught, and for the thousands of patients that Dr. Davidson could have helped if his life had not been taken.

When we graduate from medical school, we take the Hippocratic Oath, which in the modern version not only exhorts us to heal the sick but to exhibit warmth, sympathy and understanding.  Let our patients and their families extend those same traits to us as we complete our daily rounds.  Let our clinics and hospitals be places of healing, and not of killing.  Please, please let us do our jobs.

Addendum January 22, 2015.  This was submitted by a colleague in the Comments section but I want to bring it forward to the actual page.  Please take the time to read and consider signing.

Dear colleagues,

The violent death in Boston of Dr. Michael J. Davidson, an inspiring cardiac surgeon who devoted his career to saving lives and improving the quality of life of every patient he cared for, is a senseless and horrible tragedy.

There was an incident in the past where a patient at a VA hospital made a threat to shoot a physician.

VA physicians are federal employees. Federal employees have enhanced legal protection against violence. The threat of violence toward a federal employee by itself is illegal. Police officers were able to conduct an investigation and speak with the patient. Once the patient understood that the threats could lead to prison, the volatile situation was defused.

Laws protecting federal employees against violence provide an additional tool to help direct an individual away from violence. Unfortunately, this protection does not extend universally to all healthcare providers.

The White House has a “crowd-sourcing” system where the executive office reviews proposals with at least 100,000 signatures obtained within a 30 day period.

http://wh.gov/i220E asks that the legal protections against violence currently provided to federal employees be extended to all healthcare providers.

While no law reduces risks to zero, our effort would be well worth the energy if it could prevent even one senseless death.

Please take a moment to sign this petition, and consider spreading the word. Everyone can sign this petition including your friends and family.

Thanks.

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.

When Cancer Comes To Call

A patient story tonight, from Jackie:

 

It was one of those days.  I had been to the gynecologist the week prior because I somehow knew the sporadic bleeding which I had experienced was NOT a simple Urinary Tract Infection for which I had been treated three times.  My doctor did the scrapings and biopsies and had me run down the hall for an ultrasound.  I’d had lots of ultrasounds during my pregnancies – especially with my twins -  but this one wasn’t fun.  There was no cute baby to smile at.  This time it was a transvaginal ultrasound which involved the insertion of a rather large tube into “that place” to look at the uterus.  “My what a big wand you have” I joked with the sonographer.  She didn’t smile.  That’s when I got a bit nervous.

Of course my doctor put a positive spin on everything – prior to the biopsy results.  He said it was probably just an over thickening of the uterus, Hyperplasia.  So I decided to wait until there was something solid to review and went on about my life.  I had a dental appointment a few days later.  My dentist announced I needed a root canal immediately and sent me to a nearby Oral Surgeon.  As I was pulling up to the Oral Surgeon’s office my cell phone rang.  It was my gynecologist.  “Well, there is a malignancy….”.  The words hung in the air.  We had a brief conversation – darn, I thought – I had researched  Hyperplasia thoroughly and knew all the right questions to ask.  I felt like I had studied for a test and then the test changed.   He said I needed to contact a special Gynecological Oncology surgeon and that his office would tell me what’s next.  So I called and left a message with that doctor but said I couldn’t talk for a couple of hours because I was just about to go in to have a root canal.  One thing I will say about those specialists’ offices; they run like a well oiled machine.  As I walked back to my car 2 hours later there was a message on my cell phone.  It was Jay, the Office Manager for the Gynecological surgeon I needed to see.  He was calling to schedule my appointment.  He paused and said “Good luck with the root canal. Sounds like you are having a great day”.   And so it went.

My life was forever changed.  May brought the diagnosis.   June brought the scheduling of the hysterectomy.  July 1 was the surgery.  July 10 came the pathology report.  Not what we had hoped for– the “once and done” hysterectomy revealed some naughty cells lurking within the uterus that have a tendency to “jump” into other areas.  Chemo or Radiation? My case was submitted to the Austin Gynecological Oncology Tumor Board for review as recommended by my Surgeon.  I was overwhelmed.  I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  As is often the case when you do get the “C” diagnosis; you are thrown into a blender of emotions but when the dust settles the appetite for knowledge takes over.  And so it was decided that radiation was the protocol. After I healed from surgery, radiation began.

So here’s the thing:  it wasn’t that horrible.  For anyone who has been through tough times, worked hard and experienced inconvenience or sadness – you are mentally strong and prepared for this challenge.  It is definitely a Mind Game.  I decided to fight and endure and not to whine and whimper.  For 6 weeks my life revolved around daily visits to the Oncology Center.  The treatment wasn’t bad.  The hardest part was drinking 40 ounces of water prior to treatment.  The side effects clicked in about 3 weeks in; lower GI issues.  But oh well, diarrhea is not the end of the world.  My pubic hair fell out which I found fascinating. I met wonderful friends in the waiting room.  The therapists and nurses and doctors were wonderful.  My neighbors and family rallied and emotions ran high.  Food and flowers poured in.   My sweet neighbor who had just finished two years of breast cancer diagnosis, surgery, chemo, radiation, reconstruction – I was at her door daily for her battle.  Now, she was at mine.  Life sifts down to the basics of priorities: Faith and Family and Friends.

I finished my radiation on September 15 and got to Ring the Bell which is special to all cancer patients because it means YOU ARE DONE.   My sweet family and a few friends showed up.  Tears flowed.  My husband pushed through the group to shake the hand of my Radiation Oncologist and choked “Thank you for helping my wife”.  I was ready to start my new healthy life.

Check-ups will continue for a few years and I will see both my Surgeon and Radiation Oncologist often. That’s okay.  My Surgeon is cute (I think he is almost the same age as my oldest son) and my Radiation Oncologist is an incredible mother of four who never seems hurried or distracted and makes me feel like I am THE most important patient in her practice.  I feel so blessed to have been in such capable hands.

I feel wonderful.   Celebrating my December birthday was more special this year.  Welcoming the New Year signaled almost a palpable relief to make a fresh start.  I take nothing for granted and try hard to live in the moment.  Ever the planner, this has been my most challenging goal.

For Christmas this year my daughter gave me a beautiful silver charm.  On the front it says “Faith”.  She told me to turn it over.  On the back was engraved 9-15-2014.  My final day of radiation.  It has been the most horrible of years, but it has been the most wonderful of years.  When Cancer comes to call you rise up and fight the good fight.  And then, you go on.

And Speaking of Plastic Surgery

I have a new favorite doctor show, “The Knick” on Cinemax, airing on Friday nights.   The show stars Clive Owen as the charismatic cocaine addicted Chief of Surgery Dr. John Thackery at a fictitious New York City hospital called The Kickerbocker at a time when surgery was one foot out of the barbershop.  The tagline is, as they say, priceless– “Modern medicine had to start somewhere.”  On the third episode, last Friday night, Dr. Thackery performs a pedicle skin graft from the upper arm to cover a gaping hole in a woman’s face where her nose used to be, before she got syphilis.   Back in those days, this was a marvelous feat.  Real progress in what we now know as reconstructive surgery didn’t come until the end of World War I, when Sir Harold Gillies, a New Zealand otolaryngologist later known as the “father of plastic surgery,” established the first hospital ward for the facially wounded in Queen Mary’s Hospital in Kent.

For over fifty years, I have been a bystander to the evolution of plastic surgery.  As a teenager I remember the heady early days of microvascular surgery—my father, Dr. Melvin Spira reattaching the scalp of a man whose hair got caught in machinery, then the tales of sewing back severed fingers and ultimately entire limbs with gradually improving functional results.  In the 1970’s the great French surgeon Dr. Paul Tessier, pioneer in techniques for cranio-facial surgery to correct birth defects came to the United States to teach, and I remember a Saturday morning clinic at my father’s office, where mothers whose children’s facial deformities were so severe that these kids had, literally, never seen the light of day waited in line to be seen by the great surgeon who could give them back a normal appearance, and thus a life.

Plastic surgery, like my own specialty of Radiation Oncology, has become one of the “lifestyle” specialties to which medical students aspire, particularly those with an artistic bent and good hands, and for good reason.  Cosmetic procedures are highly reimbursed, and are done during “regular” working hours. Walking around here in San Diego and Los Angeles, surely two of the plastic surgery capitals of the world, it’s easy to spot who has had “a little work” done.  Having one face lift might be a good thing (I wouldn’t know because, as I’ve covered in previous blog pieces, my imagination runs wild with the possibilities of complications and I am far too chicken for elective surgery), but have three and you become one of “Our Ladies of Perpetual Surprise”, eyebrows at the hairline.  Same goes for breasts—it is not normal for the “girls” to be rigidly immobile as their owner pounds away at the Stairmaster.

Last year I mentored a medical student who had started his medical education thinking that he wanted to become a plastic surgeon.  After a beloved aunt developed breast cancer and needed radiation, he started to think that perhaps he would rather become a radiation oncologist because he enjoyed dealing with cancer patients.  He was an outstanding student, and I was quite sure that he would be accepted, and do well in either specialty.  I assured him that with his gifts, and his compassion, he could combine his interest in helping cancer patients with his interest in reconstructive and restorative surgery. Residency interviewers for plastic surgery residencies have a difficult job these days: all of the applicants SAY they want to do reconstructive surgery, but most end up doing cosmetic work.  Apparently my student was convincing when he said he wanted to do plastic surgery to help cancer patients.  He started his plastic surgery residency at Stanford last month.  Dr. John Thackery of “The Knick” may be fictional, but I hope that my student leads the way in new innovations in reconstructive surgery.  My cancer patients may depend on it.

My Days In Dermatology

I’ve always been good at pattern recognition and my visual/spatial orientation is excellent. Photography is my hobby, so it was only natural that as a medical student and internal medicine resident, I loved my dermatology electives.  Each day yielded up a new parade of interesting skin lesions and rashes, and by the end of my rotations I was confident in my diagnoses and recommendations—contact dermatitis?—steroids!  Eczema?—steroids!  Psoriasis—yep, you got it—steroids again!  Pimples?  Well that was a diagnosis that required antibiotics.  But sometimes, when it was really bad—yes, STEROIDS!  These were the days before Botox, and Restylane, and non-invasive mini-lifts, and lasers.  Occasionally there was the excitement of a skin cancer, or a truly serious life threatening dermatologic crisis, but as much as I enjoyed saying the words “pemphigus”, or even “bullous pemphigoid” (try it—they roll right off the tongue)—I didn’t want to spend my career looking at it.  I chose radiation oncology after my internal medicine residency, and never looked back.  I wanted to take care of sick people.

When I announced my retirement in February, the calls started coming in immediately.  Having moved several times since I graduated from medical school, I hold medical licenses in three states which makes me a prime candidate for companies who supply locum tenens or “hired hands”– doctors who cover practices while the regular doctor goes on vacation, takes maternity leave, or just needs a break.   I was vaguely interested, but not enough to commit to spending weeks away from home living in a hotel.  But then a call came in from my old group, a Los Angeles based practice that had just set up a skin cancer treatment unit in a San Diego dermatologist’s office.  The hours were reasonable, and the job was only two days a week, covering while the regular radiation oncologists took their summer vacations.  This type of radiation machine, called the Xoft, is fairly new and uses a miniaturized high dose rate X-ray source to apply radiation directly to the skin cancer, while minimizing the dose to surrounding tissues.  For basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, the results are extremely good, with excellent cosmetic results providing a great alternative to the Moh’s procedure which can leave patients with a significant “divot” in their faces, sometimes requiring skin grafts.  Dermatologists can buy these machines, however they are not legally allowed to operate them, having no training or background in radiation therapy.  That’s where I come in.

For the last two weeks, I’ve spent Mondays and Wednesdays in the dermatologist’s office.  It is a remarkably busy office with seven exam rooms going at all times, an operating suite and numerous medical assistants scurrying around with headsets on to communicate with Central Command.  The atmosphere is similar to what I would imagine the air traffic control room is like at JFK.  No one ever goes to the bathroom or takes a lunch break. There are flat screen TV sets in every exam room, to entertain the patients while they wait (try explaining skin cancer treatment with radiation to an 86 year old with bilateral hearing aids watching an episode of “24”—challenging to say the least!) As the physician in charge of radiation, I must set up each patient to make sure the applicator is placed correctly.  This involves a brisk walk down a long hallway from my makeshift office to the radiation room many times a day.

In the middle of that hallway, mounted on the ceiling, there is a television which runs a continuous infomercial about the joys of cosmetic dermatology.  It took me a few passes to notice it, but once I did, I was mesmerized.  The pulsatile blue light of the laser erasing wrinkles, the miniscule needles injecting the varicose veins, the tightening of the dewlap under the chin and the apparent dissolution of fatty deposits in the wrong places and their magical reappearance to plump the cheeks and add youth to the lips were hypnotic.  A head-setted medical assistant colliding with my ample in-need-of-liposuction derriere brought me back to reality and the skin cancer patient waiting.

I am beginning to see some advantages in my current part time job.  I smile brightly at the dermatologist in his scrubs.  He is an MD-PhD and very smart to have hired radiation oncologists to treat his skin cancer patients.  I have a new admiration for the tools of his trade.  I think that if I am really diligent, I might just get a free consultation and who knows—with a little buffing and polishing and injecting—a whole new face!

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.

Love in the Time of Cancer

I used to be able to paint my own toenails but that was before age and arthritis caught up with me and these days I can’t SEE my toes, much less paint them.  Here in the land of perpetual sunshine and flip flops one is not allowed to have ugly feet, so off I went today to see a lovely woman who takes care of such things.  Today she was very sad over the end of what had been a promising love affair. He had seemed to have all the “right ingredients”—handsome, slightly older than her but boyish still, owned his own business, long divorced with no pesky baggage such as alimony—for a while she thought he just might be “the one.”  I asked her what happened and she said simply, “Anger issues.”

A couple of months ago, writer and radiation oncologist Dr. Robin Schoenthaler shared with me an essay she wrote in 2009, which I had somehow missed when it went viral over the internet back then.  It is simply titled, “Will He Hold Your Purse?” and here is the link because it is a must-read for any woman seeking a man:  http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/magazine/articles/2009/10/04/will_he_hold_your_purse/  I thought about that article today as my manicurist, age forty-five and gorgeous but still single described walking away from a relationship that she recognized could be harmful.  And I remembered some of my own stories from the cancer clinic, and I told her one of them.

I recall one couple distinctly, from 2003.  They were both in their eighties, and she had breast cancer. One reason they were so memorable as a long married couple was that he was African American, and she was Caucasian, and back in the 1940’s when they married, two schoolteachers in love, they must have faced nearly insurmountable prejudices and racism.  He was an attractive soft spoken gentleman, with a sweet smile and wiry close cropped gray hair.  She must have never been a great beauty, but time had thinned her hair, and added on pounds, and osteoporosis had twisted her spine. When I saw her after her surgery, she had had a wound infection, and her breast had become misshapen as a result.  He held her hand tightly though out the consultation, and when I left the room so that she could get dressed, he followed me out into the hall and grasped my own hand in both of his. With tears in his eyes, he asked, “Will she be alright?”  I replied, “Yes, she will.  Her cancer was caught at an early stage, and I think she will be fine.”  He sighed with relief, and still holding my hand, he said of his wife, “She is my princess and my queen and my better half and my best friend.  I could never go on without her.  Thank you, Doctor, thank you.”   We walked back into the exam room and he beamed at her.  She blushed as she met his gaze.

I don’t wish for any couple to have to undergo the litmus test of a cancer clinic.  But when my manicurist said to me today, “I don’t think I even believe in love anymore,” I sure wish we had a proxy for that partner who, in Dr. Schoenthaler’s words, “will sit in a cancer clinic waiting room and hold hard onto the purse in his lap.”  That’s the one we want.

How to Save a Life

And I would have stayed up with you all night–Had I known how to save a life.

The Fray, “How to Save a Life”

The tenth season of Grey’s Anatomy premieres tomorrow night.   For the cognoscenti, this means we will find out what happened after the cliff hanger of last season:  Will April really leave Matthew at the altar, for her first love plastic surgeon Jackson?  Or will the handsome paramedic who loves the doctor unconditionally and quite unbelievably without ego issues, win his lovely bride?  After all, he organized a flash mob for his proposal to her.  He deserves his beautiful red headed pig farming sweetheart.  And why do I watch these things?  Is it because the women wear makeup and heels and do their hair and the men are so very handsome and no one looks tired, and lives are saved quickly, with great valor. As Hemingway’s Jake says at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

The song, “How to Save a Life” by the Fray, was used in an episode of Grey’s second season, and afterwards became an anthem for the show itself.  My favorite rendition is a home video with a hand held camera, of the actual cast singing the song at a benefit—you can view it here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KX3AjiqFA1s   Yes, I know they aren’t “real” doctors. But I suspect that if you act like a doctor for ten years of your life, it might be hard in the end to tell the difference.  The emotions are all right out there, in the video and in the show.  And that’s the real answer to why I watch Grey’s Anatomy—I get it all out in front of my own television set so I don’t have to do it in front of my patients.   I don’t think it’s helpful to have your doctor cry while she is giving you bad news.

Friday, February 28 will be my last day at work.  I am officially retiring, at age sixty. My staff and my patients have been asking me why for several weeks now.  They make very complimentary proclamations like, “But you look so young!” and “But you’re so GOOD at what you do” and “How can we replace you?”  The answers to these questions are “thank you,” “thank you,” and “No one is irreplaceable.”  The truth is that I feel like time is running out.  I have had some extremely joyful experiences over my last thirty two years in Radiation Oncology and I have witnessed some incredible success stories, many of which I have told here.  I know that miracles DO happen.  But I have also seen some terrible things, and there is not a doctor alive who would say that we don’t take our failures personally.  We do.  What I have come to realize, at least for me, is that the sad times are not getting easier as I am getting older.  Facing the deaths of loved ones this past year–patients, relatives, friends and pets—has left me with an acute sense that the clock ticking in the belly of the crocodile is ticking for me, and  I am no Peter Pan.

So I will leave my practice in the best of hands, and I will read and I will write and I will travel and see more of my children and all the other people I care about.  There is a line in “How to Save a Life” which goes, “And you’ll begin to wonder why you came.”  There is one thing that I am certain of, when it comes to my career.  I will never ever wonder why I came.