When it comes to our health and our health care, we love the numbers. Sometimes, we even fall in love with the numbers, assuming that the numbers tell us the whole story when in fact that may not be the case. Cholesterol numbers, blood pressure numbers, body mass index, whatever. As patients and consumers, we are frequently defined by our numbers.
But what happens when those numbers and other medical tests such as CT scans really don’t tell the story we think they do? The recent evolution of prostate specific antigen (PSA) is a case in point: for decades we believed the numbers saved many lives. Turns out PSA did save some lives, but not as many as we thought and at the considerable financial and human expense of treating many men who probably did not benefit.
So in that vein an article and editorial in a recent issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology makes the point that just because we have numbers does not really mean they offer us the scientific certainty about the course of cancer we may think they do.… Continue reading →
Perhaps more than most, doctors struggle with memories that mark sad moments in their careers. For me, one of the most indelible was about a wonderful young man with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML).
When I started my oncology career in the early 1970’s, CML was almost always fatal. It would start with a chronic phase which was treated with pretty simple medications. But those medications didn’t cure the disease.
The “almost always” scenario with CML was that several years on, it would morph into an acute phase, or “blast crisis,” that almost always ended in an untimely and frequently very premature death.
I came into contact with this young man just as he was diagnosed with CML. A couple of years later, he entered that acute phase. Rather than face the rigors of intensive chemotherapy, a regimen that was almost always futile, he took his own life. Moments like that live with us forever.
Decades later, (2003 to be exact) a prominent oncologist—who at the time was the director of the National Cancer Institute—made an audacious promise. Andrew von Eschenbach said that by 2015 we would end the suffering and death from cancer and convert it to a chronic … Continue reading →