Against Medical Advice
By John Unger Zussman
A woman I’ll call Bonnie sat in the exam room with her husband, waiting for her oncologist. They held hands without speaking, wearing thin, brave smiles.
(I’ve given Bonnie a pseudonym, and refrained from identifying my relationship to her, out of respect for her privacy. Suffice it to say we are close.)
Three months earlier, after a suspicious mammogram, a biopsy came back positive. Bonnie had a malignant breast tumor.
The diagnosis was a shock to Bonnie, who had no history of cancer in her family. She had to learn to cope with her brand-new reality. But watching someone I love face cancer set off land mines in my brain. My father died from rhabdomyosarcoma at age 35, when I was ten; my sister died of breast cancer at 45. My mother survived breast cancer in her 30s and spindle-cell sarcoma in her 70s, just after my adoptive father (her second husband) was treated for prostate cancer.
So I lived with a sword hanging above my head, expecting that someday I’d have to face that diagnosis myself. Once, my doctor’s office left a message on a Friday asking me to repeat a Hemoccult test. I spent an angst-filled, sleepless weekend convinced I was dying of colon cancer. It turned out that only one of the three samples had read positive—a fairly common occurrence—and the retest came out normal. Still, cancer is my demon, and Bonnie’s cancer let it loose.
The doctors put Bonnie through an exhausting battery of X-rays, MRIs, and CT scans to find out how much it might have spread. Meanwhile Bonnie worked her way through denial, anger, and depression, the first three stages of grief. She scoured the Internet medical sites and joined her local breast cancer support center.
After all the test results were in, her surgeon arranged for her to appear before the tumor board at his hospital, a celebrated university cancer center. First, a group of surgeons and oncologists came in to examine her. “It was strange, sitting there,” Bonnie’s husband said later, “as that parade of medical people took turns feeling her up.” Then she waited while the doctors reviewed her case.
Finally, they met with the hospital’s top breast cancer expert. He presided over the tumor board and was to be her oncologist.
“We’ve reviewed your case,” he told Bonnie, “and we all agree. If your surgery goes as we expect, you’re going to go through six months of hell. But then you’ll be fine.” Although the tumor was small, he explained, it was an aggressive type and might have spread to her lymph nodes. She would probably need radiation followed by chemotherapy.
Bonnie looked at her husband uneasily. She dreaded the thought of radiation and chemo, which had taken a physical and emotional toll on every breast cancer patient she knew.
As Bonnie’s lumpectomy date approached, she moved on to bargaining. Her research said that if her lymph nodes were not affected—that is, if she had stage 1 cancer— she would probably need no chemo, maybe not even radiation. And the less stress she subjected her body to, the better.
Bonnie’s hopes were fulfilled when the surgeon brought good news. She had caught it early. The tumor was small, the surgical margins were clear, and no lymph nodes were affected. Her cancer was only stage 1, and the surgeon was confident he had gotten it all.
Relieved, she settled into acceptance. And now, a few weeks later, she and her husband looked up as her oncologist entered her exam room and sat down. He congratulated her on her successful surgery and her positive test results.
And then he dictated a full course of radiation followed by aggressive chemotherapy.
This wasn’t what Bonnie had bargained for. She questioned him, but he was relentless. He couldn’t be sure that some cancer cells hadn’t escaped or that they wouldn’t metastasize. And that’s what you really want to avoid, he said. When she continued to resist, especially the chemo, he became defensive. “Why are we having this conversation if you’ve already made up your mind?” he demanded. He wasn’t used to mere patients questioning his authority.
Finally, Bonnie asked directly, “What if I go without chemo?”
“It’s risky,” he replied, “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“What if I skip radiation?”
“I’ll strap you to the table.”
Bonnie doesn’t cotton to being told what to do. “I don’t believe in hell,” she said later. She quickly regressed back to anger—and stayed there.
The first thing she did was fire her oncologist. She couldn’t believe the good results had not altered his treatment plan even a millimeter. “I want a doc who’ll treat me, not my cancer,” she said.
I tried to be supportive, but challenging medical authority is not my nature. I didn’t even know you could fire your oncologist. I wanted her to explore every avenue, use every medical weapon to beat this disease. Foregoing further treatment seemed a great risk, tempting fate, taking a chance with her life. Of all my fears, this was the oldest and most devastating. Bonnie’s cancer unleashed my demons and awakened my nightmares.
Bonnie stepped up her research and sought a second opinion. She also got access to a website, widely used by medical professionals, that estimates the risk of breast cancer relapse and mortality based on characteristics of the patient, her tumor, and potential chemotherapy.
And when she described that research, to my surprise, it was my mind that began to change. Bonnie’s prognosis was good no matter what she did. Radiation would cut the chance of recurrence, but it would have no effect on her survival and might cause long-term heart damage. Chemo would increase her chance of survival by a few percent, but she would be flooding her system with poisons that would cause nausea, hair loss, and the possibility of long-term cognitive and systemic impairment. That made her decision easy: no radiation, no chemo.
Her surgeon, whom she liked and trusted, tried to dissuade her. “What will happen,” he asked, “if the worst happens and you get a recurrence or even a metastasis? How will you feel then? Won’t you regret this?”
“Not for a minute,” she said without hesitation.
We often talk about patients waging a “courageous battle with cancer.” This usually means they try every means available, suffer every side effect, in the attempt to conquer their disease. But it also takes courage to forego treatment—to understand the odds and trust them, to know your own body and what’s best for it, to realize that, for you, the treatment might be worse than the disease.
Most cancer professionals are courageous too, and dedicated. They take their best shot and watch their patients die and then have to come back the next day and do it all again. It’s no wonder that they want to use every possible tool to beat this damn disease.
So they develop a standard treatment and apply it across the board. No doubt this is partly dictated by insurance and liability concerns. “Radiation? Of course you want radiation. It reduces the risk of recurrence by 40% or more.” But when that risk is low to begin with, when it doesn’t increase your chance of survival, and when you add the risks of radiation itself—the choice is far from obvious. Women need the option to make their own decision.
In the end, ironically, it’s not the oncologists’ job to cure cancer. Their job is to treat their patients—and it’s not the same thing.
Twenty-one months later, Bonnie is both healthy and steadfast, without a moment of doubt or regret. The odds are in her favor. I try not to second-guess her, even if I know that disaster might lurk in every screening exam and mammogram, even if just writing these words seems like tempting the gods. It’s her body and her decision, not her doctor’s.
The health care establishment and the breathless media sometimes tout new treatments as medical miracles. But they have risks and cause damage, which have to be weighed against their benefits. I hope to explore this calculus in future posts, and explore what it’s taught me about medicine and the state of our culture. I’ll also describe the ways Bonnie has chosen to manage her risk of recurrence and metastasis. She is not going gentle unto that good night.
Please note that I am not a medical doctor (nor do I play one on TV), so my reflections are meant to be descriptive and not prescriptive. I wouldn’t pretend to tell anyone else what to do. I invite your comments and, especially, your own stories.
Shortly after Bonnie made her decision, she learned that her original oncologist was running a clinical trial with, coincidentally, the same chemo medications he prescribed for Bonnie.
By that time, Bonnie had found a new oncologist. He gives her options, not orders.
Copyright © 2010 by John Unger Zussman. All rights reserved.