Everything changes with a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer. I don't really think that's an overstatement. My relationship with my oncologists has, by nature, changed as well. With Stage 4 one of the things that's especially important is good communication between physician and patient. It always is, but now two of the topics that are imperative to review at each meeting are side effects of medications/chemo and symptoms I'm having (especially pain).
I have always had two oncologists' input on my treatment since my original diagnosis of Stage 2 breast cancer in December of 2006. Even through the more than five years of remission, I continued meeting with them about my adjuvant therapy.
Immediately after I was diagnosed in October with Stage 4 my oncologists began talking about finding a balance between length of life and quality of life. These two aspects of my life would have to be constantly juggled. The art of medicine and its role in treating cancer suddenly has become crystal clear while the science of decision-making often remains blurred.
For many people it is often reassuring to hear there is a plan, a prescribed protocol. There is a type of comfort in being diagnosed with a disease and being told there are defined steps you need to take. With metastatic cancer it's not crystal clear. Patients must often help decide what is right for them.
I was offered options about which treatment to try first: a traditional chemo or an anti-hormonal combination. One would attack cancer cells, but also attack the healthy cells in my body. The other would aim to "starve" the cancer of some of its fuel (hormones). One important positive feature about my cancer is that there are choices about how to try to keep it in check. This hopefully will equate to having stable disease for a while so I can live longer. Some types of cancer do not respond to certain therapies and therefore there are fewer options in treating them.
When I went to see my oncologist at Sloan Kettering this week she pulled the chair over and sat only inches from me. I was on the exam table, in the modest red and peach Seersucker bathrobe Sloan uses for their exam gowns. We sat and talked about research and trials and side effects and my blog and my family. She gets emotional sometimes when we talk about the current situation. So do I.
Then she said something that I will always remember. She said that many doctors start to distance themselves from their patients as the patients get sicker and closer to death. She said this is their coping mechanism. Of course I couldn't help but wonder if the same process is what is behind some of my friends disappearing and rarely contacting me anymore. Some physicians, she said, seem to back away, needing emotional distance not to be weakened each and every time a patient dies.
In contrast, my doctor feels this is precisely the time in her relationship with her patients to embrace them, bring them close, provide them care and comfort as much as possible. It's important to remember, she always says, that this isn't a case, this is a life. A person with friends and families who love them. Death happens for all of us. It's her role to do what she can to prolong life, and when that can't be done anymore, it's important to still care for the person, not just treat the disease.
The nature of the doctor-patient relationship changes over the course of illness. Perhaps nowhere is that truer than in oncology. I've always been a partner in my care, it's the only way I know how to be. It's my life, after all, and the decisions we make as a team are ones I do not want to regret because I gave up control or didn't have adequate information. However, I also accept that treating cancer is not an exact science.
Some patients do not want to have options. They want their physician to pick the course of treatment that seems best matched for the patient and proceed. A patient sometimes doesn't want choices; he or she wants the doctor to do the sifting and prescribing. This works for many people, and takes the responsibility off the patient. There is mental comfort in that approach, too. I can understand why some people make that choice.
One of the things that is difficult in being a true participant in your own care is that while you get the satisfaction of partial control, you also must accept responsibility if/when things go wrong. This is part of the deal.
Some things just are. Some things just happen, even when you do all you can. I have accepted this jagged truth all along. But I think some people never do.