Showing 21 - 30 of 435 annotations tagged with the keyword "Cancer"

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This thoughtful essay from the author of The Emperor of All Maladies expounds on information, uncertainty, and imperfection in the medical setting. The author recalls witnessing a difficult operation when he was a medical student. The attending surgeon admonished the operating room team, "Medicine asks you to make perfect decisions with imperfect information" (p.5). This essay is constructed around that idea as the author shares three personal principles that have guided him throughout his medical career.
     Law One: A strong intuition is much more powerful than a weak test. (p. 22)
     Law Two: "Normals" teach us rules; "outliers" teach us laws. (p. 38)
     Law Three: For every perfect medical experiment, there is a perfect human bias. (p.54)

He views the medical world as a "lawless, uncertain" place and stresses that biomedicine is a "softer science" than chemistry or physics. Clinical wisdom, in his opinion, is imperfect, fluid, and abstract whereas the knowledge base of other basic sciences is concrete, fixed, and certain. He laments, "My medical education had taught me plenty of facts, but little about the spaces that live between facts" (p. 6).

His own "laws" of medicine are actually laws of imperfection. Clinical diagnosis can be thought of as a "probability game" where human bias creeps into the process. And ultimately common sense trumps pure statistical reasoning. Woven into the discussion are considerations on a variety of topics - children with autism, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, genomics, radical masectomy, and randomized, double-blind studies. Nods to Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher), Thomas Bayes (Bayes' Theorem), and Johannes Kepler (Kepler's Laws of planetary motion) fit in nicely with the thrust of the treatise.


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Not God: A Play in Verse

Straus, Marc

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

Not God is a "play in verse" with two characters, a hospitalized patient and the patient's doctor. The scare quotes indicate the fluid quality of Not God, which the author originally conceived as a sequence of poems spoken in a patient's voice. Subsequently, he added the doctor poems (monologues) to create a "dialog" between the two voices. Once again, scare quotes suggest the atypical quality of this dialogue, since the two characters express different feelings and perspectives on the situation, but do not directly address one another. The play version has received several performances at colleges and small theaters.The patient speaks first in a monologue that begins "A man's cough bounces down the hallway / like pick up sticks... " and ends with "I am here two weeks." (p. 7) It soon becomes evident that he/she has cancer and is receiving chemotherapy. The doctor has changed this person's life by speaking "one word," after which "nothing / would ever be the same again." (p. 10). The patient is knowledgeable, accepting of his/her condition, a keen observer with a good sense of humor, as in "Doldrums" (p. 19) and "Cricket" (p. 23), and a person who affirms life in spite of adversity. The doctor is burdened with the power of medical knowledge. In particular, he understands the deadly meaning of signs and symptoms: "We say / excess water and swelling of the belly, knowing / full well... / an ovarian cancer is almost certain." (p. 33) But the meaning this represents is chaos: there is nothing humane or transcendent about cancer. Unlike his baseball card collection in childhood ("Shoebox," p. 35), cancer is neither confined nor orderly. In the second act, the patient sympathizes with the doctor whose "head is so cluttered / with obligatory data." Paradoxically, the doctor must be protected because he is "filled with dying." (p. 41) The doctor becomes angry with the burden, "Why / ask me a question that only God can answer?" (p. 49) and cries out that his work is "alchemy, / potions and witches' brews." (p. 54) In the end, while dying, the patient imagines "a bridge that can cross / the Atlantic." (p. 68), while the doctor speaks a prayer, "The word cure, dear God, is always / near my lips, though I have been constrained from / saying it aloud." (p. 66)

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One Word

Straus, Marc

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

In this collection (80 pages), Marc Straus speaks of the inadequacy of communication and knowledge in medicine; the pauses, the distance, the hesitations. You think you know what you are doing, "But no, they always ask the question / I never knew." ("The Log of Pi") "The question / might be so simple, so clear / that you’re unprepared to answer." ("Questions and Answers") Though words are in one way inadequate, the medical word carries great power: " . . . I knew that moment / I would say one word for her and nothing / would ever be the same again." (One Word, annotated in this database.)The poet comes to understand that he represents both sides of medicine, both the detached and distant Dr. Gold, and the warm and trustworthy Dr. Green. (See annotation of Dr. Gold & Dr. Green) Unfortunately, this knowledge only comes about after the patient has died ("Dr. Gold & Dr. Green, II"). We learn from experience, sometimes too late.

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One Word

Straus, Marc

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

The speaker reflects that "life is sometimes reduced / to a single word . . . . " He remembers one incident at a bus stop, another interviewing a man "for a job in my lab." Then there was the time a woman "walked / into my office for one thing . . . . " He discovered a "fullness" in her neck and knew that the word he would say to her, the one word, would change her life: "nothing / would ever be the same again."

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Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

The author, an experienced surgeon, believes that we will be less frightened by the prospect of death if we understand it as a normal biologic process. He points out that 80 percent of deaths in this country now occur in hospitals and are therefore "sanitized," hidden from view, and from public comprehension. He describes the death process for six major killers: heart disease, stroke, AIDS, cancer, accidents/suicide, and Alzheimer's disease.But the power of the book is in its intensely personal depiction of these events and in the lessons which Nuland draws from his experiences. The message is twofold: very few will "die with dignity" so that (1) it behooves us to lead a productive LIFE of dignity, (2) physicians, patients, and families should behave appropriately to allow nature to take its course instead of treating death as the enemy to be staved off at any cost. Only then will it be possible for us to die in the "best" possible way--in relative comfort, in the company of those we love/who love us.

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The Man with Stars Inside Him

Coulehan, Jack

Last Updated: Oct-06-2015
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
Chen, Irene

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poetry

Summary:

During the physical examination of an elderly cancer patient, the doctor considers the tell-tale symptoms of pneumonia. While the patient is dying, the physician imagines that the symptoms represent the birth of a universe and that the patient is becoming a part of the galaxy.

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Welcome to Cancerland

Ehrenreich, Barbara

Last Updated: Sep-28-2015
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

A “drive-by mammogram” leads the writer, Barbara, to a biopsy of a suspicious breast lump. She awakes from the fog of anesthesia to hear the surgeon’s bland remark: “Unfortunately, there is a cancer.” Welcome to Cancerland, a place where her identity is displaced by the vast implications of the diagnosis, another operation, and arduous months of chemotherapy. What works for her own peace of mind has little to do with the trappings of pink-ribbon sentimentalism in the survivors groups.

Barbara resorts to her knowledge of cell biology, asks to see her own tumor under the microscope, and contemplates the meaning of visualizing the malignant cells even if she does not believe the exercise can help her. She dissects the rank commercialism and denial in the survivor movement: let me die of “anything but the sticky sentimentalism in that Teddy Bear.” She decries the claims that cancer therapy makes better skin, better hair, and better people, with better bodies, especially when an implant on one side subtends a cosmetic procedure on the other.

Posting these thoughts on a chat line, she discovers that most women berate her attitude and suggest she needs a psychiatrist. But one dying woman agrees with her distress, and writes of having cancer, “IT IS NOT OK.” Admitting feminists can be found in the “survivor” community, Barbara faults its underlying tone for being coercively optimistic, infantilizing, and insulting to the dying and the dead. She is angry. Very angry, and her “purifying rage” spares no one: doctors, support groups, feminists, drug companies, and the Cancer Society. Nevertheless--and in keeping with her earlier work--she credits the women’s movement with helping to rid the world of three medical evils: the radical Halsted mastectomy, the practice of proceeding to mastectomy from biopsy without waking up the patient, and high dose chemotherapy.

Two disturbing ironies bring the essay to a close. The first, is the possibility that mammograms may not be saving or even prolonging lives, even as they detect cancers; they make women dwell in Cancerland for longer and cause too many “unnecessary” biopsies. The mammogram is a ritual, she says. The second irony lies in the role of the pharmaceutical industry which fosters the pink power movement –the ribbons, the teddy bears, the marathons-- while manufacturing the expensive poisons that seem to have anticancer side effects. These same companies, she argues, have also manufactured carcinogenic pesticides that pollute the environment. Having profitably poisoned women into having breast cancers, they continue to profit from poisons of chemotherapy.
She faults both the “cult” of the survivors movement and the American Cancer Society for their “unquestioning faith” in these imperfect instruments of action.

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Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Since Joy Davidman is known to most readers as the woman C.S. Lewis married late in life and lost to cancer four years after that marriage, it is likely that many readers will pick up Joy Davidman’s letters out of fondness for her husband’s Narnia stories or popular theology.  They will quickly find that the letters chronicle a life of considerable interest in itself.  Davidman was an award-winning writer herself, a secular Jew and atheist who turned hopefully to communism and then wholeheartedly to Christianity in her later years, though remaining skeptical—and acerbic—about church people.  The fact that she remained friends with her first husband after their difficult marriage broke up resulted in many of the letters in the collection, which include material Lewis fans will be glad to see, though it offers little intimate information about their lives except that they were devoted to one another through her painful final years with breast cancer.  Her account of that last illness is often matter-of-fact; she writes as though it is one of the less interesting parts of her life, which was full of intellectual pursuits, including editing some of Lewis’s later works, and of practical concerns that included caring for her two boys with whom she emigrated to England from New York.  

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

A bicycling, bee-keeping, British neurosurgeon approaching the end of his professional career recalls some distinctive patients, surgical triumphs as well as notable failures, difficult decisions, and mistakes. Nearly thirty years of a busy neurosurgical practice are distilled into a collection of linked stories throbbing with drama - both the flamboyant kind and the softly simmering type.

Most chapters are titled after a medical condition (exceptions are "Hubris" and "Melodrama"). Some of the headings are familiar - Trauma, Infarct, Aneurysm, Meningioma. Other chapter titles flaunt delicious medical terminology that mingles the mysterious and the poetic with nomenclature such as Angor animi, Neurotmesis, Photopsia, and Anaesthesia dolorosa.

Included are riveting accounts of both mundane and seemingly miraculous patient outcomes. One success story involves a pregnant woman losing her sight due to a brain tumor that compresses the optic nerves. Her vision is restored with an operation performed by the author. Her baby is born healthy too. But tales of failure and loss - malignant glioblastomas that are invulnerable to any treatment, operative calamities including bleeding of the brain, paralysis, and stroke - are tragically common. The author describes his humanitarian work in the Ukraine. He admits his aggravation with hospital bureaucracy and is frequently frustrated by England's National Health Service.

Sometimes the shoe falls on the other foot, and the doctor learns what it is to be a patient. He suffers a retinal detachment. He falls down some stairs and fractures his leg. His mother succumbs to metastatic breast cancer. His three month old son requires surgery for a benign brain tumor.

As his career winds down, the author grows increasingly philosophical. He acknowledges his diminishing professional detachment, his fading fear of failure, and his less-hardened self. He becomes a sort of vessel for patients to empty their misery into. He is cognizant of the painful privilege it is to be a doctor.

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is both ambitious and synthetic, qualities that well suit his difficult subject, death.  In Western culture, there are taboos against death because it fits neither into post-Enlightenment notions of progress and perfection nor into medical notions of control, even domination of human biology. A surgeon and an investigator, Gawande draws on his patients, his family, and travels to various hospitals and other caregiving places in order to confront death and see how approaches such as hospice and palliative care can improve our understanding, acceptance, and preparation for death.

Gawande has harsh words for contemporary medicine, the supposed caregiver for the dying and their families.  Relying heavily on technique and industrial models, it ignores the deep needs of the dying and provides, instead, versions of “warehoused oblivion” (p. 188), for example long, futile stays in ICUs.

As opposed to traditional societies like India, Westerners prize the independence of individuals, a status that is, of course, never permanent. In the chapter “Things Fall Apart,” Gawande describes how longer lives are now the norm but they include chronic illnesses and inevitable decline in vitality.  Our deaths are now routinely in hospitals, not at home, and often extended—sometimes brutally—by technical support and unwillingness of doctors and families to stop aggressive treatment.       
       
Also, sadly, there are fewer and fewer geriatricians at a time when there are more and more elderly.  A good geriatrician takes a long time with each patient, is not well paid, nor does s/he do income-generating procedures. Worse yet, some training programs are being discontinued.  

Gawande illustrates his ideas with case studies of patients and describes, from time to time in the book, the elderly journeys of his grandmother-in-law and his own father.  These passages make vivid the abstract ideas of the book. But it’s not just elderly patients who face death: health calamities can come to anyone, for example, a 34-year-old pregnant woman found to have a serious cancer. Various treatments are tried without success, but family and doctors act out “a modern tragedy replayed millions of times over” (p. 183) of a medically protracted death. Finally her mother calls a halt to treatment.
               
Family members often bear a heavy load in caring for a sick elder, but many nursing homes are often worse, designed for control, not support of the patients. 

The chapter “A Better Life” describes the first in a series of places that offer much improved settings for the elderly, with birds, animals, gardens, and, in general, richer lives that have a sense of purpose.  Gawande describes hospice care, palliative care, and advanced directives (including Do Not Resuscitate orders) as improvements needed to break the norms of “treat at all costs.” The old roles of Dr. Knows-Best and Dr. Informative need to give way to physicians and others who talk with patients and families about their values, their wishes for the last days, and their preparations for death. In short, aggressive treatment should no longer be the “default setting” for hospital care.     
        
The book ends with a dozen moving pages about the death of Gawande’s father. The “hard conversations” have clarified his wishes, and hospice care has provided “good enough” days.  Pain control has done well. Then, finally, “No more breaths came.” The family travels to India to spread his ashes on the Ganges. 

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