A Theoretical Note to My Students, On a Breast Cancer Case and Future Learning
Last week my students – who are, necessarily, abstracted here – studied breast cancer. How the course goes is that we meet in a small group and, each week, work through a case by Problem Based Learning. The recent case concerned a woman who, at age 35, noted a small breast lump. Each day we acquired more information about the patient, such as the size and molecular features of her tumor and prognosis. We sorted through her treatment options.
It was a dense subject. Over 4.5 hours we discussed what kind of biopsy she needed – aspirate or core needle? We considered if excision in an operating room is required to establish a breast cancer diagnosis. (rarely) We reviewed breast imaging methods (mammograms, sonograms and MRI) and tumor staging. We covered some pathology techniques including OncotypeDx and Her 2 testing by IHC or FISH. We spoke about risk factors and BRCA testing – how that’s done, what it costs and when it might be indicated. We looked at the molecular biology of Her2 signaling, and how that might be pharmacologically blocked. We considered the nomenclature of LCIS and DCIS, and the concept of overdiagnosis. We talked about the woman’s decisions for surgery (lumpectomy or mastectomy) and sentinel node evaluation. We considered kinds of adjuvant therapy including hormone blockers, chemotherapy combinations, radiation, antibodies including Herceptin, and other treatments she might receive. We spoke about her prognosis and odds of recurrence.
We spent time on the statistical concept of lead-time bias. And more. Medical school isn’t easy.
What I hope for my students, real and in cyberspace, is that they’ll always try to do what’s best for their patients. Sometimes in PBL we use PowerPoint. So here’s a list of three things to keep in mind, on learning – not just about breast cancer, but about all aspects of medicine:
1. Keep studying. Patients want and rely on their doctors to stay up-to-date about medical and scientific knowledge in their field of practice.
2. Keep paying attention, so you’ll hear and recall your patients’ concerns and preferences, and offer care that’s mindful of their goals and values.
3. Keep thinking, constantly – how the data applies to the person, an individual, the real patient you’re trying to help.
Of course you should keep asking good questions, solicit advice from colleagues, be respectful of the people who entrust you with their lives…
The best presentations don’t cover too much ground, so I’ll stop here.
See you in the morning, or next week,