No Convincing Evidence: An MRI Story

I have endured 14 or 15 MRIs in these past 15 or 16 months. That is quite a few. I worry about side effects of prolonged exposure to the contrast agent gadolinium, which is injected by IV at each MRI. For that matter, I worry about my IV blowing a vein when the gadolinium is “pushed”! I worry that I’ve forgotten a metal artifact in my pants or shirt pocket that will be ripped from my clothing and ricochet around the tube like an errant bullet. (I think there was an episode of House about that.) I worry that I’ll nod off 30 minutes into the scan, jolt awake, and have to restart the sequence of images for failure to hold still enough. (There was also that one functional MRI scan that required motor and language tasks to be performed while the images were captured, and I felt very nearly brainwashed, but I only say that for dramatics.)

But most of all, I worry that this will be the scan to reveal new tumor growth or recurrence. Everything you read about glioblastoma includes some version of the description, “aggressive, deadly, poor prognosis, incurable.” My neuro-oncologist told me, “it is very unlikely that you will not have recurrence.” Another doctor (whose name and title remain nameless) took the breaking of bad news a step further when he told me and my wife during an office visit, “you know you’re going to die from this, don’t you?”

This week I had an MRI scan on Monday, my every-eight-week immersion into the tube, and today, I want to spend a little time writing about the process of undergoing monitoring for chronic and advanced illnesses. People often say to persons with chronic illness to, “keep a positive attitude,” and it turns out this is excellent advice, but our loved ones who speak these words have little in mind of the experience the person with illness is enduring. I hope to offer insight into the obstacles for keeping up a positive attitude.

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Radiology Report from my scan on August 28, 2017; 15 months post-diagnosis.

The term “scanxiety” is fairly well known around the cancer community. The term speaks to the feelings of anxiety, depression, fear, and stress surrounding an upcoming scan or test to monitor disease progression. Scanxiety may set in days before a scan and may stick around for a few days following. What is problematic about this feeling is its seeming contradictory nature in the face of the general public’s attitude toward disease. Diseases are to be “beat,” we are “cancer warriors,” we will take on our disease and, “kick it’s ass,” because, “you got this.” Our friends, family, coworkers, sometimes medical team, and many other acquaintances want to cheer us on like we’re marching off to war–hell, President Nixon declared it a “War on Cancer” when he authorized expanded budget and autonomy for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in 1970.

In an MRI machine a patient lay motionless, often in scrubs, under the oppressive sounds of the giant magnet, if a head MRI you’ll be latched into an immobilization mask, and typically an IV is placed in one of your arms. You take deep breaths. You feel very much out of control of the circumstance, of your own body, and of the disease that grips you. This is scanxiety. Yet, when you checked into the imaging facility on Facebook your friends all said, “you got this!”

I feel anxiety, and its origin is not only the scan itself, but it is my deep sense of fear and sadness juxtaposed against people’s calling on me to fight, to battle, to kick its ass, to be brave, and don’t worry, because “prayers up.” In an effort to be encouraging to our loved ones we launch a barrage of empty platitudes and weak analogies.

This is scanxiety.

The eight week countdown to the scan is wait enough, but there is plenty more waiting to be found. Because of health care restrictions my imaging facility and neuro oncologist are affiliated with separate institutions. Following my scan I submit for a disc to be created, which can be picked up 24 hours following my scan. I then take the disc to my oncologist’s office, and wait either for a call or for my office visit the following week. My only glance at results following the scan is the radiology report you see pictured above, which is typically posted three to four days after the MRI.

Standard language appears on this report, including the imaging techniques and “signals,” e.g. T1, T2, FLAIR, etc., and you’ll also notice standard diagnosis language, “malignant neoplasm of parietal lobe,” and procedural terms, “resection,” and anatomical identifiers, “posterior right parietal lobe.” Each of these are vitally important for the language of medicine in our fee for service, reimbursement-driven culture of American healthcare. See, my diagnosis is coded with a unique identifier from the International Classification of Diseases, in its 10th edition (ICD-10), and this code allows for certain procedures, also coded with unique identifiers from, for example, the Current Procedural Terminology (CPT) code set. My healthcare providers are only reimbursed for CPT codes allowed under certain rules associated with my ICD-10 code.

I share this with you to help folks understand how deeply entrenched our coding and classification systems are to report on the experience of a patient living with illness within our current healthcare system. Because my medical team resides within different institutions, I know that when a specialist writes an order for me  that will cross these institutional boundaries, I need to check for accuracy in my name, date of birth, insurance details, maybe my medical record number, usually my diagnosis code, and so on. Each of these logistical details are also held in mind when showing up for a scan. My MRIs run about $5,000 each, every two months, so it’s the best interest of my family that we’ve crossed our t’s with insurance.

What is not standard in this report is the language used by the radiologist who reads the scan and prepares the radiology report. I was motivated to write this blog post today because of the particularly nuanced language appearing in the “Impression” of the report: “…without convincing evidence of progression.” When reporting these results to a friend I said, “[this conclusion] is a respectfully conservative claim I like as a philosopher, but not necessarily the certainty I’d like as a person with brain cancer.”

 

We tell our loved ones living with chronic and advanced illness to keep a positive attitude. This advice is good for us all, yes? Life is that much better when we approach it day to day with light heartedness, care and concern for others, a sense of humor, and yes, above all, “a positive attitude.” As you help friends and family navigate the challenges of illness, especially advanced or chronic illness, remember that often the symptoms of disease are second-place to our worry, anxiety, stress, and depression. My best news this week is not that my cancer has not grown any more, but it’s that there is no convincing evidence to conclude that it had. This is humbling and worrisome, but it is also liberating to free myself from the pursuit of certainty I may never attain, and so I have learned to be happy with evidence that is at best only indicative.

Measuring Outcomes: What the Newly Diagnosed Should Know

I open this post by offering key definitions that are helpful to anyone impacted by a cancer diagnosis, directly or indirectly, which speaks to nearly half of the population of the United States. Indeed, “Approximately 38.5 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer of any site at some point during their lifetime” (reference). I explain the standard metrics for monitoring cancer response to treatment, and I discuss the role of these metrics in determining the standard of care protocol. I conclude with a discussion of the cancer experience that is not so easily quantified, or captured by the established metrics. My aim is that in this article, persons relatively new to the cancer experience may find tools to better equip their journey. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) offers a similar resource on understanding cancer prognosis (here).

 

Standards of care for treating cancer—that is, the established “protocols” for how, when, in what sequence, and guidelines for determining dosage, vary by cancer type, yet for at least 50 years, the general cancer treatment program is colorfully, if not cynically, called “slash and burn,” referring to the twin procedures of surgery and radiation therapy. Or, “slash, burn, and poison,” when cytotoxic (cell-killing) chemotherapy agents are ordered following surgery and radiation. The new era of “precision medicine,” which employs highly specialized treatments engineered to target the biological characteristics of a person’s cancer, promises to discard this primitive slash, burn, and poison program, but to date, hugely successful outcomes that result from targeted therapies in trial for quite specific cancers have failed to be borne out clinically in the general cancer patient population. In short, for all the hype of precision medicine, day-to-day treatment protocols across the country maintain the status quo.

 

The aim of any treatment protocol is to offer the therapy, singularly or in combination with others, that is most likely to produce the greatest degree of therapeutic efficacy, or “disease response.” Therapeutic efficacy, disease response, is measured with sophisticated diagnostic imaging tools such as MRI, CT, or PET scans. The overarching therapy effectiveness metric for cancer types is quantified by median overall survival (OS), meaning the time after diagnosis when half the measured population has died and the other half is still living. Median progression free survival (PFS) offers a similar metric quantifying the time following diagnosis that half the population has experienced disease growth or recurrence and the other half has not. Take my case, glioblastoma, with a median OS of roughly 15 months (reference). This indicates that 15 months following diagnosis, half of the diagnosed population is no longer living, and half of the population is continuing to live. My current time since diagnosis is today (August, 2017), 15 months out, meaning statistically, half of those who were diagnosed around the same time I was have since passed away. Some died very quickly after diagnosis, and others will live three, four, five, sometimes six or eight years longer. Of course I aim to be included in those outliers showing long-term survival of five or more years.

 

Protocols are tested against current standards of care, typically in randomized control trials, to measure OS and PFS against the current medians for the standard of care. Regulatory bodies, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for example, approve drugs, devices, and procedures, when those therapies increases either OS or PFS for the trial population above the current standard of care, without an intolerable side effect profile, or increased toxicity. Trial therapies that perform better than current standards, or when no current standard is established, have a likely chance to be approved. Sustained improvement in key metrics over time, reported in longevity studies, meaning spanning long time frames, or meta-analyses, meaning spanning large and diverse populations, may lead to a revision or new standard of care for a cancer type that is treated by the newly approved therapy.

 

In short, the standard of care is established for umbrella categories of cancer types based on measuring the same key metrics across large populations over a long period of time. Those therapies, or combination of therapies, that maximize OS and PFS, while mitigating toxicity are selected as the ongoing standard of care.

 

The politics of drug discovery and approval involve governmental regulatory agencies, multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industries, and culturally embedded research paradigms. That is all too much to thoughtfully discuss in this article. I will say only this: reimbursement drives the systemic treatment of cancer. Standard of care therapies are typically covered by health insurers, but many experimental treatments or so-called “off-label drugs,” that is, drugs approved in the treatment of one disease that show promise for treating other diseases but are not yet proven in randomized control trials, often are not covered by insurance. Relatedly, the genomic sequencing that is required to determine the appropriate “precision medicine” to target a person’s specific cancer variant is currently not covered by the majority of health insurers.

 

Standard of care offers patients the protocol with the statistically demonstrated best shot at long-term survival. Standard of care is also the protocol commonly covered by insurance. On its face, this is a good thing that insurance covers the standard of care for a disease, but there is at least one downside. This schema ties patient treatment options to governmental budgeting priorities and big money lobbyists. In a purely hypothesized scenario, but not one divorced from reality, if a lawmaker hears from her lobbyist from big pharma that disease X is well controlled with approved treatment Y, then the prospect to increase funding to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may appear less pressing to the lawmaker who sees little reason to pay the big price tag of experimental research, when the lobbyist is showing their company’s success rates. This introduces a feedback loop where the government fails to fund research, insurance companies have little reason to reimburse experimental therapies, and patients are offered fewer options to explore cutting edge therapies. It is for these reasons that I advocate for increased research funding for the NIH, its subsidiary arm, the NCI, and not-for-profits, like the National Brain Tumor Society (NBTS) who equip persons affected by brain tumors to raise their voices to lawmakers who may only be hearing one side of the experimental research budgeting issue.

 

Taking stock, so far I have roughly defined key metrics put in service to monitor the effectiveness of our treatment protocols, I have explained how these metrics are used to revise standards of care, and I have revealed one issue with our reimbursement-driven healthcare system, namely, that it serves as a barrier to funding trial research. Now, I turn my attention to the experience of illness—something not easily reported by standardized metrics. To resolve this issue, patients must learn to tell their stories! The fields of medicine and pharmaceuticals are becoming more interested in something called patient reported outcomes (PRO). These PRO metrics speak to the quality of life impact given a selected treatment protocol, but constructing a narrative, with the support of friends, family, and trusted clinical practitioners, is the best way for a patient to share their experience with lawmakers and medical teams to serve as a catalyst for change—whether the change is to ask congress for budgeting priorities or frame a conversation with a patient’s clinical specialist.

 

Harnessing the power of story telling can also be a powerful tool to communicate with loved ones who struggle to know how best to respond to the illness experience.

 

I disengaged my friend group at each of three milestones in my life: first, when I started grad school, I lost friends to my study commitments; I picked up an evening job in the service industry to help care for my kids during the day, attend class in the afternoon, and bartend for income at night. Second, when my wife and I grew our family by having kids, my friends were mostly grad students and bartenders, not the most family-friendly groups, and adjusting to family life created a rift in some of these relationships; third, when I was diagnosed with aggressive and incurable brain cancer.

 

I cancel on friends often: dinner plans, concerts, hanging out to catch the Cubbies play, I cancel these plans all the time. Sometimes because I am fatigued, sometimes because I know the environment will trigger a focal seizure, or at least bring on seizure-like symptoms: left-sided numbness, light-headedness, dizziness, and headache, or for what has been the case recently, I cancel because I just want to be home, with my wife and kids nearby. Brain cancer has dynamically changed my relationship with my wife. The emotional burden we carry cannot be overstated. The metrics, the open trials, morning email bulletins from medical news outlets all twist and turn their way through my mind each day. My wife works hard in a trauma hospital to support our family, to be the only driver in our home to get each of us in our family of five to where we need to be, to carry our family’s medical benefits, and she manages our monthly budget. She and I are both exhausted. She needs more sleep than she gets. I need support from friends who understand, but with a disease incidence rate of three in 100,000 and only 5% of the diagnosed population living five years, it is difficult to find a friend locally who shares my diagnosis, and among my non-cancer friends, it is tough to find one who not only listens, but who understands. I look for emotional support from my wife, which places yet more burden on my care partner to fulfill multiple roles in my life.

 

I read, write, and research daily, fearing that I must approach my “work”—blogging, public speaking, working on a manuscript, with urgency because the course of my disease, or the effects of the treatments to control the disease, in time will negatively impact my higher level cognitive functioning. Here I am, a head full of medical knowledge, self-imposed restrictions on having pizza and beer, pretty disengaged from new music, sports news, and pop culture, and never much wanting to do anything other than do each day only those things that contribute to the big goals I set out for myself before I reach my dot on the overall survival normalization curve.

 

Practicing how we construct our stories to communicate these emotions, decisions, and reactions in a way to inform our friends and family and not alienate them is an acquired skill that will take each person impacted by a cancer diagnosis, directly or indirectly, some time to cultivate. It is my hope that equipped with the language in this article, and the glimpse into my personal experience, you may find your attention to these issues more focused.

(Adam’s) Narrative Medicine

Tomorrow, Wednesday, April 12, I will pull a chair up to a table in the Medical History room in the IU School of Medicine, Medical Library. I join ten others–nine students and the professor, who are studying Narrative Medicine this semester. Consider this the preamble. In this post I rehearse my talking points, and I emphasize the importance of storytelling in medicine

Many of you following my journey recognize that I have been sharing my story for several months by way of social media–Facebook Live, this blog, monthly twitter chats (#BTSM), speaking in community settings, in academic venues–Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine; this upcoming public lecture hosted by IUPUI Religious Studies Department on April 19, and perhaps more important than each of these are my regular coffee conversations with close friends and former colleagues, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in groups.

Here are two theses, hypotheses maybe, which have always been there, just beneath the surface of my areas of interest, motivating continued study.

  1. Story telling is a long-honored and integral piece of our human experience. The content that comprises our stories vary widely by cultural traditions–and with respect to our friends who study myths and tropes, perhaps the content across cultures is not tremendously different, after all (consider flood and creation stories traced easily to many cultures to emerge from the Mesopotamia), but the point I wish to make here is more broad. The act of sharing our experiences, framing our narratives, and contributing to an oral tradition is a defining feature of our collective humanity, at large, and certainly features of our identification with a community or, more abstractly, a peoplehood. But this stands against the following, second hypothesis.
  2. We seek an objective worldview, so far as we think it is possible to achieve. The Western academic tradition employs the language of mathematics to describe the world on purely objective terms, purportedly void of subjective interpretation; physicists seek, through reductionism, the outlook that meaningful explanations are sought after only at the bottom-most level of the explanatory target: the level of fundamentality. That at some most primitive level the discrimination of distinct objects dissolves and what remains are, well, not even objects at all, but a collection of attributes, charge, mass, spin, and so on that stand in relation to one another.

These theses stand in seemingly stark contrast to one another: on the one hand, the anecdotal, narrative, story telling accounts, passed from family to family, friend to friend, peer to peer; multigenerational. These stories contribute the to a sense of community and the reinforcement of values indicative of exemplars borrowed from the community who now live on as the subjects of their celebrated narratives.

On the other hand, the objective, quantified worldview has little concern for the subjective reinforcement of values drawn from a community of origin, and instead is concerned chiefly with predicting outcomes from a set of initial conditions and governing principles. Given reductionism, determinism, and fundamentality, the evidence presented to us by contemporary physical theories are, by definition, stripped of subjective identity.

Where does the physician find herself? Her patients, flesh and blood; her recording of their symptoms locked behind a protective wall erected from the scaffolding called HIPAA. Our office visits call out for personal connection. Our medical record keeping warns against privacy breaches.

Is this the space–the gray area between the practice and the policy, that we find narrative medicine? Between the stories and the statistics? The physicians and the patients. Medical history gathering is the pathway through which the two may become connected. Especially for the chronically ill, the cancer survivor, the terminally diagnosed, that more so than in any other space physicians and patients are presented with the opportunity to recapture the first of my two hypotheses. That storytelling is attachment to a community, through that which medical school may drive a wedge; may serve to detach physicians from their patients; detach specialists from the bodies on which they specialize. The community can be rebuilt when we seek to remove the barriers the lead to detachment. When healthcare is viewed not as physicians and patients–two separate classes, but as members of a medical community, where medical professionals are accountable for the care they provide, and patients are accountable for investing in their health and wellbeing by taking seriously the relationship with their caregivers.

Like great storytelling, the hero of our narratives, the reinforcement of personal values we experience when seeking solace in our favorite stories–what Rita Charon calls the “sense of story,” might we find the strength to craft our own narrative, featuring ourselves at the center, and refusing to settle for medical professionals who are not compelled to listen closely while we tell our stories.

Wednesday, April 12, I will tell my story again, for the n’th time, but for the first time. It will be told to a room of strangers, yet, when our time together is over, the influence we have over each other will linger. This is only possible when we recognize ourselves in others, when we eliminate barriers erected in the name of responsible detachment to practice objective science and medicine, and we do this through the art of storytelling.