Surviving to bear witness

Sunday, June 10, 2018 marks two years after Whitney and I were transported in a wheelchair accessible van from an inpatient acute rehab facility to the IU Health neuroscience center. We sat in my neuro oncologist’s office and received news of my glioblastoma diagnosis. A kind, compassionate nurse who would become more than a member of our care team, but also a dear friend, held each of our hands.

 

I am unsure of what to say on the day of this important milestone, but I am compelled to offer a few words–really, the task of this blog.

 

I published my first post to this blog in October 2016. The staff physiatrist discharged me from inpatient rehab four months prior, and I received the GBM diagnosis only weeks before that discharge. In October 2016, I recently completed a six-week daily chemo and radiotherapy protocol, and I began the ‘maintenance’ chemotherapy cycle: five days, high-dose chemo, followed by 23 days off, and repeat.

 

I struggled to settle into a rhythm and direction for this blog.

 

Early posts revealed a thinking-out-loud style of scientific explanation, connections with philosophy, and personal narrative about a young man, husband, dad, brother, and son, internalizing a devastating cancer diagnosis. I wrote many posts with an aim in mind that never fully materialized. Posts proved too scientific for casual readers, too flimsy for academics, and too personal for many friends. I continued to write, striking a chord with some here and there. Often the reader thanked me for keeping everyone up to date, among other encouraging remarks, noting my positive attitude, vulnerability, and bravery. On the latter, I call up Abraham Verghese writing the Forward to Paul Kalanithi’s, When Breath Becomes Air. Verghese (roughly) remarks, “how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way.”

 

If there is bravery to recognize, it is rooted in my vulnerability.

 

In July 2017, nearly one year after our trip to the neuroscience center, news broke of Senator John McCain’s diagnosis. I was first notified in a tweet (a “mention”) by an academic colleague. I wept. I wept for the Senator and his family, for me, and for my family. I wrote an open letter to McCain to be published in medical journalism outlet, STAT News. The letter received an overwhelming response from people affected in one way or another by GBM, including newly diagnosed patients, others living with the disease, care partners of those with the disease, and relatives of people with GBM who died.

 

Article comments, increased blog traffic, and a full inbox signaled that my commitment to continued writing and posting found an audience. That audience, my audience, includes those closely impacted by this disease. Comments and emails expressed an important and instructive theme: people seek to tell their stories and impetus to do so may be triggered when people share a common suffering. GBM is diagnosed in three people per 100,000. This qualifies GBM as rare. Compare GBM incidence to breast cancer, which is diagnosed in one person per every eight. Nearly 300,000 people are diagnosed annually with breast cancer, contrasted with 14,000 cases of glioblastoma.

 

Consider the disparity in incidence rate.

 

I note these statistics only to emphasize the reality that if you’re looking for a resource to discuss your illness experience, the peer population is disproportionately small contrasted with the horror of the disease, for those with rare diseases such as GBM.

 

It is an honor to receive and reply to emails from people impacted by GBM. Many of these patients and care partners are now friends. Sadly, I have heard from loved ones about the death of people I emailed with frequently. It is a sample size of a population dying in the thousands each year; nonetheless, these are deeply personal losses. I am humbled to consider that in the final weeks, maybe days, before death, I was in active dialogue with a (now) late friend. I thank the loved ones who exhibited vulnerability, hence bravery, to open an inbox, to read email conversation threads, and to inform an unknown person on the other end of an optical fiber cable their loved one is now gone.

 

After living with this disease for two years, I extend my deepest gratitude to those who follow my journey. Thank you. We mark this milestone together.

 

To the patients and care partners who look to me for next steps in their own journey, or to reflect in the rear view mirror to recall and process their own experiences, I mention the broad range of experiences shared across a rare disease population, but notice each is unique to the individual.

 

Telling our stories to each other, to our social circles of influence, and to our clinicians is an effective way to locate our agency, that is, to discover those outcomes for which we may exercise control, amidst a disease and circumstance for which an abundance of variables exist outside of our control. Expressing our experiences through storytelling is  an effective means of establishing a supportive network who endure the journey alongside us, and yes, to celebrate our milestones.

 

It is a fitting conclusion to say a few things about where I am today. The reality is when given a life-limiting diagnosis like GBM, everything changes, yet, surprisingly maybe, nothing changes. I am still uncertain of which alternative is favored: for all to be different or a return to the familiar.

 

Frustratingly, maybe, but not uncommon in spaces between such tension, the answer lies in the middle.

 

Many think, mistakenly, by my judgment, that a life-limiting diagnosis affords an opportunity to sort out priorities and pursue “what matters most.” For many, physical impairment, cognitive deficit, decreased life expectancy, and financial toxicity limit the pursuit of new or revised priorities and mythologized bucket lists.

 

What is different is the perspective that must be adopted. You still must do the laundry, but you fold the shirts with acute knowledge of your own mortality.

 

Two years following my diagnosis, the Adam that existed pre-diagnosis is dissimilar from the Adam, now two years on. Though, these historically competing personal identities are far from strangers. I continue to enjoy coffee with former faculty and friends, I recently submitted with a friend and colleague a co-authored chapter to an academic press, I try, and often fall short, to balance my responsibilities to my wife and family with my own aims and personal projects. I returned to work. I maintain responsibility for house chores that I am capable of completing. These activities are familiar and routine.

 

After an especially busy travel season, where I was in Chicago, D.C. twice, and San Fransisco within a six or seven week period, my wife reminded me that while I aim to leave a legacy in the world, my greatest contribution to the future is a commitment to be present with the family; with our boys. This tension exposes the dual nature of illness: to serve ourselves before we cannot, or to serve others while we can.

 

There is little success to be found in chronic and advanced illness. There is no victory, fighting, nor conquering. I find these frameworks for illness harmful. So also, there is no succumbing to disease nor losing the battle. There is life. There is death. What there is, is enduring. Enduring is another name for survivorship. We survive to bear witness. Bearing witness is vulnerability, and it is vulnerability we recognize as bravery. Survivors are constrained to record their experiences. To leave behind something permanent from the ephemeral.

 

If there is something Whitney and I have sought to teach others, lessons we learned ourselves, it is we live to bear witness to endure each day. Our endurance is strengthened when we commit ourselves to being on the journey with others. Thank you for hearing our story and for telling us yours.

 

Enduring. With vulnerability. With bravery. Together.

 

June 10, 2016; June 10, 2018.

xoxo.

(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.