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.

Inside My Head, Now on YouTube

On May 13, 2016, Adam was ordered to a “stat” MRI by his primary care provider. The scan revealed a 71mm primary brain tumor that would be diagnosed as glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a deadly and aggressive brain cancer. In this talk Adam shares his journey (so far) with GBM, and he highlights lessons that are applicable to everyone.

Please click to view the one hour talk now available on YouTube.

Finding Purpose between Power and Helplessness

I write this post a day after delivering a public talk, Inside My Head: A Story of My Personal Walk with Brain Cancer, and a day before my next eight-week MRI scan. In this post I report the strange emotional dichotomy, recognizing my power of positive impact through public speaking while suffering under the helplessness of the course of my disease.

“In two days I will be changing into hospital socks and oversized scrub pants. I consider the ongoing depersonalization of the American healthcare patient: name, date of birth, diagnosis c71.9, malignant neoplasm of brain, unspecified; one-size-fits-all standard of care, cinching tight the drawstrings on the waistband of my comically-too-big scrubs while I shuffle to the MRI bed.” I delivered these words Sunday afternoon, March 5, to a packed house of 250 or more friends, family, and colleagues gathered in support of me, my wife and young children, and to make a dent in median overall survival by raising money and awareness for brain cancer research.

It is the day after my talk. It is the day before my next eight-week MRI scan to monitor disease progression. This morning I suffered a minor “event” or “episode” or something. I lost my footing in the living room, grasping for a door frame to prop myself up. I tapped out two more emails on my iPhone when seeking respite on the couch following my “something.” I continue my “work”: seeking venues to deliver talks, spread awareness, and raise funds to support my young family after I am long past useful.

I returned home last night following an unmatched display of support from  my community. I hugged my older boys for bed. I rocked my youngest for sleep while participating in the monthly #BTSM chat. This month’s topic: survivor guilt. Other persons with with brain tumors, many living with the disease longer than I have, poured out the contents of their hearts in 140-character confessions, searching for purpose, meaning, and self-worth in contrast to the ever-lengthening list of old friends, now deceased. The longer you walk this road with others, the older friends are lost and new ones join in the march. What lessons live on from the last generation to lend to the newly diagnosed?

 

My youngest son received his 18-month check-up this morning. He is a dot on a curve representing a percentile. All lines trend up. At a point in all of our lives we reach an apex and become a downward trending dot.

 

My wife returns home with our little guy in tow She notices me hunched over my phone on the couch, seeking respite yet tapping away.

“You have to rest!”

There is no resting for me these days, only sleeping when tired.

“You have to take it easy.”

I tap on my phone to pitch my next talk, to schedule a meeting to contribute to a caregiver- and patient-facing website offering resources to people in the path of disease, to connect with the tweet-savvy to grow my network, to share my blog, to gain more followers, to carry out a mission beset by chemotherapy, fatigue, and nausea. To find self worth in my own personal quest toward a meaningful life.

“Sent from my iPhone” isn’t just a status, or business, or to indicate traveling correspondence, but to assert, “I may be nauseated, but I’m not dead”; “I am ‘working from home’ under a blanket, tapping away at the lessons to lend to the next generation.

 

It is the day after my talk, the day before my next scan. Name, date of birth, scrub pant size? The same system I criticize, I trust myself to its care. I cry over this journal today because I am afraid; terrified, really. Do not mistake my comfort and articulation when discussion my morbidity or mortality for hope that I may evade the advancing line. Acceptance does not ameliorate fear; it embraces fear. If one-size-fits-all standard of care depersonalizes the American healthcare patient, we must recapture our personhood. What is more personal; what is more human, than realizing our own mortality. “The path through fear is familiarity,” I spoke yesterday.

The day after my talk, the day before my scan. I am seeking purpose somewhere between the power of my influence and helplessness of disease progression. Between power and helplessness, a person’s place in the world, surviving.

2016 Statement on Cancer

Two years ago, December 26, 2014, I had a seizure (undiagnosed).

This year, December 25, 2016, I had a seizure.

I have brain cancer, and like many, mine presents with frequent seizures. It took 18 months of “it’s probably stress related,” and “it could be vertigo” to get an MRI ordered (May, 2016) to investigate my dizziness and left-sided weakness and reveal a primary brain tumor. Since, I underwent (awake) brain surgery, inpatient recovery, inpatient rehab, chemo, radiation, and now monthly chemo cycles. I continue to struggle with seizures as part of my cancer. I vowed not to be the cancer mascot; not to fill your feeds and timelines with Adam and his cancer story. “I’m more than my disease,” I quipped.

New strategy: fuck that.

I am the cancer mascot on behalf of an estimated 12,000 newly diagnosed glioblastoma patients this year; 10,000 of those folks won’t live much past a year. I’m 7 months out from formal diagnosis. In these 7 months after surgery, I taught my left leg to walk again, my left arm to type again, I’ve learned cell anatomy, cellular metabolism, intro to genomics, and read extensively on competing theories of carcinogenesis. I am reading medical textbooks on biochem and molecular biology. I am graduate trained in the philosophy of science. I am strong; smart; driven. I am learning my disease.

If you think I cannot learn the biological features of my cancer..

If you think I cannot advocate to medical professionals on behalf of brain cancer patients…

If you think I cannot raise money and awareness for brain cancer research…

If you think I cannot contribute meaningful academic work with respect to the explanatory framework and ontology of cancer to benefit the medical oncology research community…

If you think I cannot expose at least one vulnerability of my aggressive cancer, with positive impact to clinical outcomes…

Prepare to have your beliefs revised.

2017 is my year.

Stay tuned.

Scan Day!

At every occasion I’ll be ready for the funeral. Even if we read too much into the meaning, no matter, turn it up as you read this post. Here are the lyrics.

Welcome to scan day, everybody! Our every-eight-week-installment of what is happening inside Adam’s head. I get to wear scrubs, the techs are friendly, I see my neuro oncologist and his terrific nurse coordinator, and I get a Starbucks after; sometimes a pastrami on rye with mustard. What’s not to like?

Keep the following acronym in mind today, friends: PFS–progression free scan.

Watch the fluids, not too much coffee, I’ll get a bag of IV saline, contrast dye, and no bathroom  breaks for 30-/40-odd minutes while high frequency magnetic resonance aligns the proton spins in my tissue to capture radio images of my brain. Hey, hey, enough with the science.

It’s like this: *bang bang bang bang*, and then we get pictures.

Lie still.

Last night was the first-Sunday-of-the-month #BTSM (Brain Tumor Social Media) chat. Topic: Death and Dying. We enjoyed engaging with patients, caregivers, palliative care docs, and hospice providers. I look forward to these monthly discussions to connect with my community–and even though we’re conversing at 140 characters, I have developed meaningful relationships through these chats.

The topic, death, dying, advanced directives, and so on will show up here soon enough. For now, the key take-away from last night is that preparing for end-of-life is a conversation that should occur  openly and often between patients, loved ones, and medical teams.

At every occasion, we’ll be ready for the funeral, and preparing ourselves helps us live into every moment, seeking meaningful relationships and pastrami sandwiches.

Cheers- AH