Reading Toms River

When I was a medical resident working at Memorial Sloan Kettering in the late 1980s, some of us joked about the apparently high cancer rate New Jersey. It seemed, though none of us could prove it, that too many of our patients came from the state across the Hudson. Statistics can be tricky, I knew. Sometimes we notice clusters of disease that are just random blips, constellations or flukes.

river landscape, by Frits Thaulow

river landscape, by Frits Thaulow

So when Dan Fagin’s book, Toms River, came out two months ago, I was drawn. The narrative opens with a gripping portrait of a young man whose frame was irrevocably altered by a childhood cancer. It moves on to the history of the small town in central NJ where Ciba, an international chemical company now subsumed by BASF, set up shop in the early 1950s.

The residents hadn’t a clue what was happening to their water. Fagin, an environmental journalist, wades through a half century of dumping, denial, Greenpeace efforts to expose the situation, local citizens’ mixed responses, real estate, some basic and theoretical chemistry, cancer registries and more.

I value this book highly. Toms River could be a lot of places – pretty much anywhere pollution goes unchecked. As the author points out near the end, the problem’s manifest in China now, and elsewhere. It’s a lesson in business ethics, among other things.

The tale intersperses epidemiology and statistics with local politics and individuals’ lives. It reveals just how hard it is to prove cause and effect when it comes to cancer – which, as I’ve said before, is no reason to let industry go unregulated. Because we’ll rarely if ever get definitive, 100%-style evidence that a particular compound causes cancer in humans. Rather, the story points to the need for lowering the threshold for chemicals on the list, and for regulating toxins in manufacturing.

A subtler point, deeper in some ways, is that there are people who don’t want to think about their neighborhood’s water supply or the food they like to eat…”Out of sight and out of mind,” Fagin says in the thick of it. He’s spot-on, there: when a toxic exposure is disconnected from its outcome by decades – and diluted, we tend not to notice or worry.

#humannature

 

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Finding Kindness and Introspection in ‘Half Empty,’ a Book of Essays by David Rakoff

Regrettably, I found the essayist David Rakoff by his obit. It happened last August. The Canadian-born New Yorker died at age 47 of a malignancy. In a reversal of a life’s expectancy’s, the writer’s death was announced by his mother, according to the New York Times.

I was moved to read one of Rakoff’s books, Half Empty, and in that discovered a man who, I like to think, might have been a friend had I known him. It’s possible our lives did cross, perhaps in a hospital ward when I was a resident or oncology fellow, or in Central Park, or through a mutual friend.

The last essay, “Another Shoe,” is my favorite. Rakoff learns he has a sarcoma, another cancer, near his shoulder – a likely consequence of the radiation he received for Hodgkin’s in 1987. He runs through mental and physical calisthenics to prepare for a possible amputation of his arm. He half-blames himself for choosing the radiation years before: “I am angry that I ever got the radiation for my Hodgkin’s back in 1987, although if it’s anybody’s fault, it is mine,” he wrote. “It had been presented to me as an easier option than chemotherapy.” He reflects on his decision as cowardly and notes, also, that it didn’t work.

He wound up getting chemo anyway, a combination – as any oncologist might tell you, but not in the book –that’s a recipe for a later tumor.  So one take-away from this sort-of funny book, among many, is that how doctors explain treatments and options to patients – the words we use – matter enormously, not just in clinical outcomes, but in how people with cancer feel about the decisions they’ve made, years later.

The other part on words, which I love, is a section on the kinds of things ordinary people – friends, neighbors, relatives, teachers…tell people who have cancer. It appears on pages 216-217 of the paperback edition:

“But here’s the point I want to make about the stuff people say. Unless someone looks you in the eye and hisses, ‘You fucking asshole, I can’t wait until you die of this,’ people are really trying their best. Just like being happy and sad, you will find yourself on both sides of the equation over your lifetime, either saying or hearing the wrong thing. Let’s all give each other a pass, shall we?

I look forward to reading more of Rakoff’s essays, and appreciate that he’s given me so much to think about, on living now.

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Reading and Hearing ‘Bang the Drum Slowly’

image from the 1973 film

Recently I read Bang the Drum Slowly, a 1956 novel by Mark Harris about players on a fictional baseball team. According to the University of Nebraska Press website, this book was once ranked among the top 100 sports books of all time by Sports Illustrated.

This is a rare cancer narrative. I’d give it 4 stars, or maybe even 5 – depending on my mood and your scale. The story’s told from the perspective of the New York Mammoths’ reliable and usually-winning pitcher, Henry Wiggen. With reason, his teammates call him “Author.” Early on, Author learns his team’s less verbal catcher, Bruce Pearson, had traveled, covertly, to Rochester Minnesota for treatment of Hodgkin’s disease.

In the patient’s words, he’s “doomeded.” Author’s immediate response reveals a clear sense of obligation to his teammate: “I will come,” he says, despite that it’s far away and his wife is pregnant. When he gets to the medical center in Minnesota, he finds Bruce looking deceptively well:

“…and in he come, all dressed, all fit as a fiddle, looking as tip-top as I ever seen him, and I said, ‘This is sick? This is why I dropped everything back home and risked my life in a snowstorm and went to the expense of a new wardrobe in Minneapolis?’   (p. 11)

Harris’s insights and skepticism about physicians in white coats and research funding are familiar now. As his protagonist (Author) remarks:

“’…You are the boys that send me 50 letters a day looking for contributions for your rotten hospitals. What do you do with the contributions I send?’

‘We done many great things,’ said the first doctor. ‘We are only human and cannot do everything.’ (p. 13)

This slim work, oddly elegant in its tenderness and guyish language, resonates today. Some of the pertinent issues include Author’s difficulty in keeping the knowledge of his friend’s illness to himself, the others’ varied responses to the catcher’s disease and cope with his looming death, some acquaintances trying to take advantage of the situation while others reach out and help, fear of the disease…It’s loaded!

An unmissable medical message – apart from the work’s cultural aspects – is that the young player with Hodgkin’s lymphoma had what was accepted as an incurable illness back then. Today, approximately 90 percent of young people with that cancer type survive for decades after the illness and may have a full life after treatment. With so much talk about the costs of care, and research, it’s easy to forget that this was a usually-lethal disease, even at the best of medical centers six decades ago.

I plan to see the two cinematic versions of this story. The first appeared on TV in a 1956 episode of the United States Steel Hour, with Paul Newman as Author and Albert Salmi playing the infirm catcher, among others. More of you may be familiar with the 1973 movie, called Bang the Drum Slowly, starring Michael Moriarty and Robert DeNiro.

Toward the end of the book, a character nick-named Piney sings an old tune about a dying cowboy with this verse: “O bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly, Play the dead march as they carry me on, Put bunches of roses all over my coffin, “Roses to deaden the clods as they fall.” Some of the players mind the music more than others. The author admits feeling sad.

Though I didn’t find much on the original music behind those verses, which probably exists and has a long history, I did find a clip of Emmylou Harris singing a newer song of the same name.

Emmylou Harris sings another version of "Bang the Drum Slowly" (YouTube)

Emmylou Harris sings another version of “Bang the Drum Slowly” (YouTube)

All these “lessons” – stories of patients, from patients, about patients, form a trail.

ES

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A Comedian Tells the Story of His Child’s Cancer

Yesterday a video came my way on Facebook. It’s a stand-up piece by Anthony Griffith, who tells what it was like working as a comedian when his 2-year old daughter had recurrent cancer and died.

This 9 minute clip packs sadness and pain:

The Moth Presents Anthony Griffith

“If you don’t know about cancer, when it comes back it comes back hard.” It’s “meaner and stronger,” he explains. To compensate for its added aggressiveness, doctors raise doses of chemo and radiation. That’s not easy for anyone, a child no less.

He reflects on his daughter’s condition back then: “So she’s bald, which she doesn’t mind because every kid in the ward is bald, and she thinks it’s a part of life…”

He recalls his predicament, as a parent: “You’re not prepared for this. There’s no books, there’s no home-ed class to teach you,” he says.  Therapists were off-limits in his community. “So you try to figure it out.”

“What did I do?” he wondered, trying to make sense of his daughter’s illness. His musings cross all kinds of barriers.

Griffith was thrilled to appear several times on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. But NBC is “all about nice and everything is going to be OK.” He felt pressured to keep everything “light” when he wanted to speak honestly.

He recounts how he felt. “And I’m hurting, and I want everyone else to hurt because somebody is to blame for this,” he shouts, two decades later. He suppressed his anger, bucked up, and performed.

Rage persists, understandably, still.

The powerful clip is produced by the Moth, an NPO dedicated to storytelling. H/t to Jen Singer.

Thank you to Mr. Griffith, the comedian and actor, for telling it like it is.

 

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Notes on the Social History of American Medicine, Self Reliance and Health Care, Today

Over my vacation I read a bit on the history of health care in the United States. The Social Transformation of American Medicine, by Paul Starr, was first published in 1982. The author, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton, gives a fascinating, relevant account in two chunks. In the first section, he details the rise of professional authority among physicians in the U.S. In the second part, he focuses on the relationship of doctors to corporations and government.

I couldn’t put this book down. Seriously, it’s a page-turner, at least in the first half, for anyone who cares about medical education, doctors’ work, and how people find and receive health care. In an early chapter, on medicine in colonial and early 19th Century America, Starr recounts the proliferation of medical schools and doctors, or so-called doctors, in the years after 1812. One problem of that era, besides a general lack of scientific knowledge about disease, was that it didn’t take much to get a medical degree. State licensing laws didn’t exist for the most part, and where they did come in place, such as in New York City, they were later rescinded. Then as now, many practicing folks didn’t want regulations.

Doctors were scarce and not always trustworthy. People, especially in rural areas, chose or had to be self-reliant. Many referred to lay sources for information. Starr writes of the “domestic” tradition of medical care:

…Women were expected to deal with illness in the home and to keep a stock of remedies on hand; in the fall, they put away medicinal herbs as they stored preserves. Care of the sick was part of the domestic economy for which the wife assumed responsibility. She would call on networks of kin and community for advice and illness when illness struck…

As he describes it, one book – William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, was reprinted at least 30 times. It included a section on causes of disease and preventive measures, and a section on symptoms and treatments. By the mid 19th Century a book by John C. Gunn, also called Domestic Medicine, or Poor Man’s Friend…offered health advice in plain language.

Starr considers these and other references in the context of Protestantism, democracy and early American culture:

…while the domestic medical guides were challenging professional authority and asserting that families could care for themselves, they were also helping to lay the cultural foundations of modern medical practice – a predominantly secular view of sickness…the authority of medicine now reached the far larger number who could consult a physician’s book.

Reading this now, I can’t help but think of the Internet and other popular and accessible resources that challenge or compete with doctors’ authority. Other elements of Starr’s history pertain to current debates on medical education, credentialing and distribution of providers.

Just days ago, for example, the New York Times ran an editorial on a trend of getting Health Care Where You Work. The paper reported on Bellin Health, an allegedly non-profit entity, that designs on-site clinics for medium-sized companies. “It has managed to rein in costs while improving the availability and quality of care — in large part by making it easier for patients to see nurses and primary care doctors,” according to the Times opinion. The clinics are “staffed part-time by nurses, nurse practitioners or physician assistants, who handle minor injuries and illnesses, promote healthy living and conduct preventive screenings.”

The editorial touts Dartmouth Atlas data and other high marks for the care Bellin provides at low costs to possibly happy workers and their satisfied employers. Still, it’s not clear to me that an on-site clinic would be a great or even a good place to seek care if you had a subtle blood disorder or something like the newly-reported Heartland virus.

On reading the editorial on delivering health care to the workplace, I was reminded of Starr’s tale of the development of clinics at railroad and mining companies in the first half of the 20th Century. This happened mainly is rural areas where few doctors lived, at industry sites where injuries were frequent. The workers, by Starr’s account, were generally suspicious of the hired physicians and considered them inferior to private doctors whom they might choose if they became ill. They resented paying mandatory fees to support those on-site doctors’ salaries. Doctors’ groups, like the AMA, generally opposed and even ostracized those “company doctors” for selling out, or themselves, at a lower price.

The second half of the Social Transformation, on failed attempts at reform before 1982, is somewhat but not entirely outdated in light of Obamacare and 40 years intervening. But many of the issues, such as consideration of the “market” for doctors and the number of physicians we need, relate to the papers of this week including an Economix column by another Princeton professor, Uwe Reinhardt, who puts forth a view that, well, I don’t share. As I understand his position, Reinhardt suggests that there may be no real shortage of doctors, because physicians can always scrunch their workloads to fit the time allotted. But that’s a separate matter…

In sum, on the Social Transformation, today: Worthwhile! Curious! Pertinent! Starr’s book is chock full of history “lessons” that might inform medical practice in 2012. And I haven’t even mentioned my favorite segments – on prohibiting doctors’ advertisements (think websites, now), the average workload of physicians before 1900 (think 5 or so patients per day), and the impact of urbanization on medical care and doctors’ lives and specialization.

Lots to think about, and read.

All for now,

ES

 

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Living Like It’s Shark Week, Take 3

It’s Shark Week, or at least that’s the situation over at Discovery Channel. The annual, virtual immersion into the world of cartilaginous fish has been adopted by your author as some sort of metaphor, but she’s not sure for what.

“Live every week like it’s shark week” is a puzzle. In fact, this statement in a 30 Rock episode lurks at the periphery of Medical Lessons year-round. By now I should confess I’ve never watched an entire Shark Week program. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering about the significance.

Remotely, it’s about mental health. Science, too. I could head into a discourse on cartilage and the alleged beneficial effects for illnesses like cancer, but I don’t believe there’s any evidence to support those claims. Surely, Shark Week has to do with whether you embrace more risk or take a safe route, swim where divers go or watch TV about nature. At another level, it’s about time – a reminder that there are only so many days and nights in each week, in each month, in each year, by which we mark our lives.

So it’s about mortality. Maybe.

An alternative theory is that Shark Week is entirely devoid of deep meaning. It could be nothing more than a tool by which the Discovery Channel turns a profit in August. This year, the event was delayed until August 12. Although I’ve never taken a course in cable network programming, I would hazard a guess that this scheduling change had to do with the end of the Olympics programming that same day.

For 2012, I’ve decided to celebrate Shark Week by not watching TV. Furthermore, I won’t write on anything that has to do with breast cancer or hard science. This morning, I walked to a beach and went for a swim before breakfast. It was fantastic.

Enjoy August! And please rest up, dear readers, because I’m likely to get serious again, soon,

ES

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Another Take on Not Smoking, the Law and Tolerance

The New Yorker published a story this week, on smoking, that caught my attention. It’s by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. The author died in 1940 at the age of 44, after a ruinous period of addictions including alcoholism, debts and other problems.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (June, 1937), photo by Carl van Vechten

Thank You for the Light dates to 1936. The main character is a woman: “Mrs. Hanson was a pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty…” She sold girdles and craved cigarettes. Smoking had the power to “rest and relax her psychologically.” He describes her growing frustration at not being able to take a drag in offices where she did business.

The story suggests that although public and workplace smoking wasn’t illegal back then, it was frowned upon in cities like Chicago. The protagonist longs for past years and places where she could chat and share a drink or cigarette with clients after work. Times had changed, she reflects.

In Fitzgerald’s words:

…Not only was she never asked if she would like to smoke but several times her own inquiry as to whether anyone would mind was answered half apologetically with ‘It’s not that I mind, but it has a bad influence on the employees.’

This vignette offers a 1930s perspective on what some call social health – that an individual’s behavior might be influenced by neighbors’ and coworkers’ attitudes. In this story, the woman finds solace in a church. I won’t give away the ending.

The short read lingers. What’s unsettling, still, is whether the socially-driven ban on smoking helped or harmed the woman.

According to the New Yorker’s Page-Turner, the magazine rejected Fitzgerald’s story when he submitted the piece. The writer’s granddaughter recently uncovered it. This time around, it passed muster.

 

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Reading Between the Lines, and Learning from an Epidemiologist

Early on in Between the Lines, a breezy new book on medical statistics by Dr. Marya Zilberberg, the author encourages her readers to “write, underline, highlight, dog-ear and leave sticky notes.” I did just that. Well, with one exception; I didn’t use a highlighter. That’s partially due to my fear of chemicals, but mainly because we had none in my home.

I enjoyed reading this book, perhaps more than I’d anticipated. Maybe that’s because I find the subject of analyzing quantitative data, in itself, dull. But this proves an easy read: it’s short and not boring. The author avoids minutia. Although I’m wary of simplified approaches – because as she points out, the devil is often in the details of any study – this tact serves the reader who might otherwise drop off this topic. Her style is informal. The examples she chooses to illustrate points on medical studies are relevant to what you might find in a current journal or newspaper this morning.

Over the past year or two, I have gotten to know Dr. Zilberberg, just a bit, as a blogging colleague and on-line associate. This book gave me the chance to understand her perspective. Now, I can better “see” where she’s coming from.

There’s a lot anyone with an early high school math background, or a much higher level of education, might take away from this work. For doctors who’ve attended four-year med schools and, of course, know their stats well (I’m joking, TBC*), this book provides an eminently readable review of basic concepts – sensitivity, specificity, types of evidence, types of trials, Type II errors, etc. For those, perhaps pharmacy student, journalists and others, looking for an accessible source of information on terms like “accuracy” or HTE (heterogeneous treatment effect), Between the Lines will fill you in.

The work reads as a skinny, statistical guidebook with commentary. It includes a few handy tables – on false positives and false negatives (Chapter 3), types of medical studies (Chapter 14), and relative risk (Chapter 19). There’s considered discussion of bias, sources of bias, hypothesis testing and observational studies. In the third chapter the author uses lung cancer screening scenarios to effectively explain terms like accuracy, sensitivity and specificity in diagnostic testing, and the concept of positive predictive value.

Though short, this is a thoughtful, non-trivial work with insights. In a segment on hierarchies of evidence, for example, the author admits “affection for observational data.” This runs counter to some epidemiologists’ views. But Zilberberg defends it, based on the value of observational data in describing some disease frequencies, exposures, and long-term studies of populations. In the same chapter, she emphasizes knowing – and stating – the limits of knowledge (p. 37): “…I do think we (and the press) do a disservice to patients, and to ourselves, and to the science if we are not upfront about just how uncertain much of what we think we know is…”

Mammography is, not surprisingly, one of few areas about which I’d take issue with some of the author’s statements. For purposes of this post and mini-review, I’ll leave it at that, because I think this is a helpful book overall and in many particulars.

Dr. Zilberberg cites a range of other sources on statistics, medical studies and epistemology. One of my favorite quotes appears early on, from the author directly. She considers the current, “layered” system of disseminating medical information through translators, who would be mainly physicians, to patients, and journalists, to the public. She writes: “I believe that every educated person must at the very least understand how these interpreters of medical knowledge examine, or should examine, it to arrive at the conclusions.”

This book sets the stage for richer, future discussions of clinical trials, cancer screening, evidence-based medicine, informed consent and more. It’s a contribution that can help move these dialogues forward. I look ahead to a continued, lasting and valuable conversation.

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*TBC = to be clear

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On Sheryl Crow’s Report that She Has a Meningioma, and Singing Loud

This morning CNN fed a headline: Sheryl Crow: ‘Brain Tumor is a Bump in the Road.’ This concerned me, not only because I’m a huge fan, but because in 2006, she began treatment for breast cancer at age 43. “Singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow says she has a brain tumor,” says the first line of the CNN story. I was concerned. It seemed liked she’d been getting a little bit closer…to feeling fine.

Fortunately, the LATimes and People magazine got Crow’s story right. Their headlines, and text, emphasize the benign nature of Crow’s newly-diagnosed condition, a meningioma. Most meningiomas are benign, local expansions of the cells that line the brain and spinal cord. These growths occasionally cause neurological symptoms. Some patients have surgery to relieve or avoid complications of these non-malignant growths, but many don’t need intervention. When I was an oncology fellow I learned that meningiomas were relatively frequent in women with breast cancer, but that association turned out to be untrue. The “lesson” back then was that if a scan shows a brain mass in a woman with breast cancer, you shouldn’t assume it’s a brain met, because meningiomas were not rare in women with a history of breast cancer. According to the NCI website today, meningiomas are more common in women than in men.

Singing ‘Rock and Roll,” on top of a piano

Cancer scares aside – I’m glad that Sheryl Crow’s brain mass is benign, and that she can keep on singing if she chooses. I’ve seen her twice in concert, and she’s amazing. I have several favorite songs of hers, but the most memorable moment from a performance I’ve seen was when she got up on top of the piano at Radio City and sang Led Zeppelin’s Rock and Roll. I wish I could do that! She’s a powerful woman, for sure.

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50-50, A Serious Film About a Young Man With a Rare Cancer

scene from "50/50"

The other evening I watched 50/50, a film about a 27 year old man with a rare kind of cancer, a malignant schwannoma. The tumor is growing and pushing into the protagonist’s lower spine. The movie, based in part on the true story of scriptwriter Will Reiser, surprised me by its candor.

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt smoothly portrays Adam Lerner, who soon finds out he has cancer. The opening scene captures him jogging in an early morning. He seems a nice, cautious and perceptive young man in a relationship. His rowdier buddy, played hardily by Reiser’s real-life friend Seth Rogan, proves loyal during Adam’s chemotherapy and, later, big spine surgery.

By its cast, I expected this might be a guys’ flick. Yes, there are jokes about sex and cancer. But the film reveals the young man wincing during sex because he’s in pain and can’t hide it. The young women are pretty much all attractive, but they’re not interchangeable props; the relationships are complicated and plausible.

An unexpected perk in the movie is the realistic family dynamic. Lerner’s mother, a worrying sort, wants to be there for her son and doesn’t trust that his girlfriend will sufficiently help him. Anjelica Huston effectively fills the mother’s role. Lerner rarely answers her calls, while she’s biding her time with a husband who, due to Alzheimer’s, doesn’t comprehend what’s going on. She respects her son’s privacy, but feels, understandably, isolated and scared.

The doctors are flawed, of course. The oncologist at the start doesn’t directly tell Lerner of his diagnosis but, instead, speaks into a dictaphone about the malignancy. He refers Lerner to an analyst of some sort, a young woman with little experience, for talk therapy.

When Lerner goes for surgery, the pre-op scene is frighteningly realistic to anyone who’s ever had a young family member go through this kind of surgery. The family and friends are worried. The patient, calmest of all among the group, can’t determine what will be his fate.

The term schwannoma derives from Schwann cells. These elongate cells normally envelop long nerves and rarely become malignant. Most schwannomas, or neurofibromas, are benign; these can cause pain and other symptoms by pressing on nerves, but don’t usually don’t spread or grow quickly. The names can be confusing, as there are several similar-sounding terms for these growths. Some people inherit a disposition to these non-malignant tumors. Rarely, as seems to have been the case in this story, a schwannoma takes an aggressive, invasive and sometimes lethal course. Another name for the cancerous form is malignant peripheral neural sheath tumor, or MPNST.

50/50 refers to the odds of Lerner’s survival, about which he read somewhere on the Internet shortly after his diagnosis. I’d give the movie a high score, 90+, mainly for its lucid, accessible approach to a cancer patient’s experience and concerns.

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73 Cents: A Film on Regina Holliday’s Work, and Patient Advocacy Through Art

Yesterday I took a field trip to meet Regina Holliday, an artist and patient advocate. She fielded questions after a screening of 73 Cents, a short film about why she painted a mural by that name in the days after her husband died with metastatic kidney cancer. He was 39 years old.

At the time of her husband Fred’s diagnosis, both she and her husband held several jobs but he lacked health insurance. In a video, Holliday describes how his diagnosis and care were delayed.

“73 Cents” refers to the price, per page, Holliday needed to pay to get a copy of her husband’s chart when he entered a new medical facility. According to the film, she was told she’d have to wait 21 days to get his records, even though he was acutely ill and dying. Now a widow with two young sons, she pushes for patients’ rights to access to their health  records and, more generally, for a patient-centered approach to medical care.

The film-makers’ point: The unreasonable price of the medical records, combined with the delay in receiving them, exemplifies unnecessary harms patients encounter in an outdated, disjointed health care system.

Holliday has several ongoing projects, including the Walking Gallery. In that, she represents health care stories on the backs of people’s jackets. The idea is to take the message of the mural – which is one patient’s story, and necessarily static – and take it further.

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The Iron Lady, a Film About an Aging Woman

image, "the Iron Lady"

Over the weekend I saw the Iron Lady, a movie about Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of England.  I expected a top-notch, accented and nuanced performance by Meryl Streep, and got that.

The film surprised me in several respects. It’s really about aging, and how a fiercely independent woman withers. The camera takes you within her elderly, blurry, husband-conjuring mind. She’s forgetful and rambling, but maintains an interest in current events, and ideas. She looks back on events in her life with pride and, seemingly, some regrets.

Well done, worth seeing!


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The Emperor of All Maladies: A Narrative of Cancer History and Ideas

This week I finished reading the Emperor of All Maladies, the 2010 “biography” of cancer by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. The author, a medical oncologist and researcher now at Columbia University, provides a detailed account of malignancies – and how physicians and scientists have understood and approached a myriad of tumors – through history.

The encyclopedic, Pulitzer Prize-winning book is rich with details. In the first half, Mukherjee focuses on clinical aspects of malignancy. He works both ancient and modern stories into the narrative; the reader learns of Atossa, the Persian queen of the 6th Century BCE who covered her breast disease, and Thomas Hodgkin, who in the 19th Century dissected cadavers and noted a “peculiar” pattern of glandular swelling in some young men, and Einar Gustafson, aka Jimmy, who was among the first children cured of leukemia in the 1950s.

The second half is a tour-de force on cancer biology; the author winds distinct threads of cancer science. He moves from century-old observations of cells with abnormal chromatin, through viral theories and hard-to-prove carcinogens, to the brave new world of oncogenes, targeted therapies, and current cancer genomics. He narrates the rift between clinical oncologists who, primarily, treat patients empirically and think less about science, and cancer researchers, who generally attend separate conferences and concern themselves with mechanisms of tumor growth and theoretical ways of blocking them. He relates a gradual, albeit slow, coming together of those two fields – of clinical and molecular oncology.

Mukherjee leaves the reader with a sense of cancer as a vast, infinitely diverse group of diseases that can mutate and adapt while a person receives treatment. The oncologist’s new goal, he suggests, is not so much to eradicate the disease as to learn more about its nature and course, to monitor each patient’s tumor and adjust medications as the cancer – or burden, as the term implies – shifts and mutates within the person who carries it along, within, for years and even decades.

It takes a long time to understand the workings of cancer cells; this book offers insights for oncologists and patients alike.


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The BC Sisterhood Takes on Sex After Cancer and What Oncologists Don’t Say

A hit in the women’s breast cancer Twitter league came my way from the Breast Cancer Sisterhood®. Brenda Coffee, a survivor and founder of the Survivorship Media Network, offers a serious post on What Your Oncologist Doesn’t Tell You About Sex.

There’s a music video, Don’t Touch Me that’s annoying but depressingly right on how some women feel in menopause –  a frequent and under-discussed aspect of chemo or hormonal therapy for BC, followed by a grounded and unusually frank discussion about what happens to women after cancer treatment, menopause and sex.

Brenda’s right; none of this was included in my med school curriculum or oncology fellowship. Although, in fairness and quite seriously, this was a subject on mine and some other oncologists’ radar long ago. Cancer treatments can have lasting effects on sexuality in men and women.

Worth checking out Brenda’s network and her candid post. You can follow her @BCSisterhood on Twitter.

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New Music from an Orchestra of Radioactive Isotopes

For the weekend –

A tweet led me to a fantastically inventive kind of music. The Radioactive Orchestra comprises 3175 radioisotopes. From the website: “Melodies are created by simulating what happens in the atomic nucleus when it decays from its excited nuclear state…Every isotope has a unique set of possible excited states and decay patterns…”

image from the Radioactive Orchestra project

The project, sponsored by a Swedish nuclear safety organization, KSU, encourages visitors to select among the graphed isotopes, listen and learn. You can try composing music on your own, or you can check out a production by DJ Alex Boman on YouTube:

Super-cool.

h/t: Maria Popova, @brainpicker, who picked up on this last August at Brainpickings. And to @JohnNosta, who sent yesterday’s tweet.

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‘Cutting For Stone,’ and Considering the Experience of Practicing Medicine

A short note on Cutting for Stone, a novel I’ve just read by Dr. Abraham Verghese. He’s an expert clinician and professor at Stanford. The author uses rich language to detail aspects of Ethiopian history, medicine and quirks of human nature. The book’s a bit long but a page-turner, like some lives, taking a strange and sometimes unexpected course.

For today I thought I’d mention one passage that haunts me. It appears early on, when the protagonist, a man in middle age reflects on his life and why he became a physician:

My intent wasn’t to save the world as much as to heal myself. Few doctors will admit this, certainly not young ones, but subconsciously, in entering the profession, we must believe that ministering to others will heal our woundedness. And it can. But it can also deepen the wound.

The point is, a physician may be immersed in his work in a manner that he is, in effect, “addicted” to practicing medicine – a term Verghese uses later on in the book. There’s an emotional boost, or relief, some doctors glean by their daily tasks. An example he gives is a surgeon who feels better upon seeing his patient, who’d been sick, recovering nicely after an operation. This applies in other fields, including oncology.

I get this. It’s an under-discussed aspect of being a doctor, articulated well in some characters’ pathology and passion.

More on this, later, elsewhere –

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President Obama Talks About Smoking and Tobacco

Today’s ML comes straight from the Oval Office. President Obama talks about smoking, and how hard it is to stop, and what can be done to reduce the use and long-term health consequences of tobacco.

What I like about this Presidential health advisory:

He credits the ACS, which is sponsoring a smokeout today.

He’s clear about the problem’s scope: “Today 46 million Americans are still hooked, and tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable, early deaths in this country.”

He doesn’t deny his own history. His experience lends credibility to his words; he understands how hard it is to stop smoking once you’ve begun.

He considers a solution: “We also know that the best way to prevent the health problems that come from smoking is to keep young people from starting in the first place.”

He reflects on the power of tobacco companies, which are fighting requirements for candid warning labels on their products.

All in 1 minute and 34 seconds!

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iPod Therapy – Why Not Prescribe It?

Yours truly, the author of Medical Lessons, is listening to music while she writes. A live version of the Stones’ “Silver Train” has just come on, and she’s happily reminded of something that happened 30 years ago. Distracting? Yes. Calming? Yes. Paradoxically helps to keep me on track? Yes.

My iPod keeps my mind from wandering further. And it lifts my mood.

And so here, on my blog, which is not peer-reviewed or anything like that, I put forth the medical concept of “iPod therapy.”

“When you’re weary, feeling small…” Music can help.

Today’s news reports that 1 in 5 Americans take drugs for psychiatric conditions. That sounds like a lot to me, but I’m no pharmaceutical surveyor. Of course many people need and benefit from medical help for depression and other mental illnesses.

But, in all seriousness, I wonder how many people might use music like a drug to keep them relaxed, happy, alert…

Why not prescribe music? It works for me, n=1.

Maybe doctors should be recommending iPods, or radios, or Pandora to some of their patients who are feeling down. I hope an academic psychiatrist somewhere, without ties to Apple or Pandora or Bose or other relevant party is coordinating a careful, prospective study of this promising and relatively inexpensive intervention.

As best I can tell, music is non-addictive. Except that if I had to live without it, I’d start humming, or maybe singing, which might be detrimental to those who live near.

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Visiting the Scar Project Exhibit

On Friday I visited the Scar Project exhibit at Openhouse, on Mulberry Street just south of Spring. Photographer David Jay offers penetrating, large, wall-mounted images of young people with breast cancer.

The photos reveal women who’ve have had surgery, radiation, reconstruction or partial reconstruction of the breasts. Some are strikingly beautiful. Some appear confused, others confident. Some look right at you, defiant or maybe proud. Some, post-mastectomy, adopt frankly or strangely sexual postures. Others hide a breast, or turn away from the lens.

This collection is not for everyone. The photos of ravaged bodies of women with cancer might be upsetting, if not frankly disturbing, to some who look at them. Not everyone chooses to do so.

The women’s scars and expressions are telling. Though not representative, these images reflect wounds not often-shown in medical journals, or elsewhere.

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A Medical School Problem Based Learning (PBL) Parody of ‘The Office’

Last week a video came my way via ZDoggMD, a popular blog by doctors who are not me.

The Office Med School Edition

The clip is a parody of The Office about Problem Based Learning (PBL).

In a typical PBL, the students meet regularly in small groups. On Monday they begin with clinical aspects of a case. The process involves finding information and researching relevant topics to “solve” the diagnosis and /or a treatment dilemma. Over the course of each week the students move forward, working through a hypothetical patient’s history, physical exam and lab studies to the nitty-gritty of molecules, genes and cells implicated in a disease process.

It’s a lot of fun, usually.

The video was uploaded in February, 2007. It’s attributed to a group of med students at the University of Pittsburgh, class of 2009.

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