Making Cancer History® ... in Robust Ways

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Like my colleagues, I'm an avid reader of medical journals as I try to understand and incorporate all the latest advances in cancer medicine.

In the April Journal of Clinical Oncology, in addition to the usual scientific contributions, I found a poignant essay written by a physician in India called "Life's lesson lost ... and learned." The author focuses on what she learned from a 12-year-old girl who lost her mother to breast cancer.

Ironically, this essay actually reminded me of our Making Cancer History campaign. You may have seen this on television or on our website, with all the inspiring stories of individuals who have been cured of malignant diseases and have their picture shown with a red line drawn through the name of their cancer. 

The essay in the Journal of Clinical Oncology reminded me that one can be part of Making Cancer History in many different ways, and becoming a patient cured of cancer is one fabulous pathway but not the only way. Imagine a person in the campaign with a red line through the phrase "cancer pain" or "hopelessness," or something else that's an eradicable source of suffering that extends beyond the tumor's mere existence.

Let me propose three additional pathways on the road to Making Cancer History: 

1.    Making ambitious but appropriate goals in the face of cancer and reaching them.
2.    Giving the gift of the "teachable moment" to share with family, friends and the medical team.
3.    Discovering ways to reach outside of our institutional structure to make something extraordinary happen for patients with cancer or risk of cancer.

Here are some specific illustrations for each additional pathway.

pamandjimMaking ambitious but appropriate goals

Ms. June Stokes is a long-term survivor of stage III ovarian cancer, and we have stayed in close touch over the years.

Her cousin, Jim McArthur, is from Glenmora, La. He was principal of Glenmora High School and his wife, Pam, was a teacher at the high school. 

Unfortunately, Pam became ill shortly after her youngest of three daughters was married. She died on Nov. 20 at the age of 56, about 23 months after being diagnosed and cared for at MD Anderson for a rare form of malignancy. About six months before she died, Pam developed kidney failure requiring dialysis. She recovered at home for about two additional months, and then she set some goals for things that she wanted to achieve toward the end of life. 

1)  She wanted to get strong enough to fly to Canada and visit her youngest daughter and get to see where she lived and meet the in-laws. Accomplished!

2)  She wanted to go to New York City and see a play on Broadway. Accomplished!

3)  And most of all, she wanted to get strong enough to return to MD Anderson and WALK into the department where she had received amazing care for weeks. Accomplished!

Ms. Stokes described this inspiring course, writing to me by e-mail that, "The staff on the floor who had taken care of her were speechless when she came walking in. It was really a miracle. And that was her main wish for when she was discharged from MD Anderson -- everything that could be done had been done. The staff called her 'their angel.'"

The gift of the teachable moment

Another example is Mr. Doan Nong, a 78-year-old man from Houston. Mr. Nong died on Easter Sunday, about one month after I first met him at MD Anderson when he came for an outpatient visit and soon learned that he had advanced liver cancer.

He had significant pain, but he had a remarkable zest for life and he was eager to receive therapy for this malignancy. Unfortunately, the medical circumstances did not allow him to begin the prescribed treatment, but he was able to achieve good pain control and he ultimately died peacefully and surrounded by his loving family at home with the assistance of hospice. 

Mr. Nong and his family, in my mind, contributed to Making Cancer History. He contributed the gift of the teachable moment. The lessons learned were not related to illness or even the biology and treatment of cancer symptoms. The real lesson here is a man's striving for life in the face of difficult circumstances, his incredible loyalty and love for his family, and the downstream legacy of loyalty and love reflected back to him by so many. 

His story of personal courage as a war veteran and prisoner of war is one of many things about him that I did not comprehend until I attended his funeral. As his oncologist, I was privileged to get to know him, his story and his inspiring family to share in Making Cancer History through receipt of the teachable moment.

Reaching outside of our institution to make something extraordinary happen

And my final example relates to some inspiring colleagues at MD Anderson who work in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Population Sciences, Department of Health Disparities.  Beverly Gor, Ed.D., and Lynne Nguyen work in different programs in their department, but they worked together as community volunteers to develop a dream. 

Spending many hours of their time along with their friend, Mrs. Rogene Calvert, they worked through the Asian-American Health Coalition and in 2001 realized their dream of creating a new medical clinic. The Hope Clinic was created to provide affordable care for many vulnerable individuals and families in West Houston. 

hopeclinic_edit.jpgBy 2008, the Hope Clinic received funding as a federally qualified health center, and they have received other significant grants from foundations and the state of Texas to further improve patient care. Among other things, this clinic is unique in having developed funding to screen patients for hepatitis B and help take steps to treat and prevent this condition that puts patients at risk for liver cancer.

See the report from My Fox Houston about the Hope Clinic:

The great thing about MD Anderson is that Making Cancer History is something that happens in so many ways, every day, through the inspiring efforts of doctors, nurses, scientists, patients, families, community leaders and countless others.

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