An Oncologist’s Perspective on Medical Aid in Dying

HuffPost Camidge MAID

Thank you Dr. Camidge for sharing your experience as an oncologist with Medical Aid in Dying (MAID). All terminally ill patients deserve the right to have their wishes honored this way.

Why I Wrote The Rx That Helped My Cancer Patient Die

in HuffPost 26-Jun-2019

 

8 years in the Cancerverse

ROS1der cofounders Lisa Goldman, Janet Freeman-Daily and Tori Tomalia at the C2 Awards Ceremony in New York City May 2, 2019.

Eight years ago today, I first heard the words, “You have lung cancer.”

In 2011, I was diagnosed with stage IIIa non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). I had traditional chemo and radiation. Once treatment ended, my cancer immediately spread to a new site. Then I learned about online patient communities, and biomarker testing for genomic alterations, and clinical trials. I had more chemo and radiation. My cancer spread again. Then I tested positive for ROS1+ NSCLC, and entered a clinical trial. Now my  cancer has been undetectable by scans for over 6.5 years thanks to research.

Eight years ago today, I first heard the words, “You have lung cancer.”

In 2011, the majority of lung cancer patients were diagnosed after the cancer had already spread, and half the patients died within a year of diagnosis. Now we have lung cancer screening for those at high-risk of lung cancer, to catch the disease in early stages when it is curable. We have new therapies that are allowing some patients to live well for 4 years or more. In 2011, the standard of care guidelines published by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network for non-small cell lung cancer were updated about once every 5 years.  Now the guidelines are updated about 5 times a year to keep pace with the record number of new treatment approvals that are proving effective for an every-increasing number of patients.

Eight years ago today, I first heard the words, “You have lung cancer.”

In 2011, I had no idea what cancer advocates did. I’d never met any. As I began to feel better, I wondered why I was still alive when so many others had died. Gradually I began supporting others in online forums, telling my lung cancer story, learning about treatment options and research, and sharing my patient perspective with the lung cancer community, medical professionals, and policy makers in hopes of increasing funding, acclerating research, and improving outcomes for other lung cancer patients. Now there are dozens of other lung cancer patients and caregivers advocating as well.

Eight years ago today, I first heard the words, “You have lung cancer.”

From that singular moment of disbelief and panic, I started on a journey that has changed my priorities, and my approach to life in general.  I now focus on living life to the best of my ability (whatever my abilities might be at the moment), on what matters most to those I love, on what will make a difference for other lung cancer patients–especially those who have my rare type of cancer.

I wonder what the next 8 years will bring.

 

Ah, the life of a research advocate …

Life as a lung cancer research advocate can require a lot of travel. This week I’m in Washington DC for two meetings.

Monday I participated as the sole patient advocate in the National Cancer Institute’s Small Cell Lung Cancer (SCLC) working group meeting, along with some of the top US researchers in this disease. The meeting will provide fodder for the NCI’s report to Congress about the Recalcitrant Cancers Act.

Thursday I’ll be one of several patient advocates at the National Institutes of Medicine for a meeting on data sharing, along with medical institutions, pharma, and healthcare payers. Data sharing in the electronic age involves more than just who can see your medical records. We patients and family members have already participated in several phone calls in preparation for this meeting. It will be interesting to hear what the other stakeholder groups think are the main barriers to data sharing, and what we should do about them.

In between, I’m trying to get caught up on expense reports and writing projects while adjusting to a new time zone. I hope my inputs make a enough difference for patients to make the travel worthwhile.

When am I old enough to die?

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book has a title that makes a much-needed point: Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer.   

As a metastatic cancer patient, this resonates with me.  The fact is, people die. Nothing can change that–not doctors, not preventative check-ups, not healthy living. NOTHING. Our bodies have built-in components that can cause disease (cancer being one) and tissue breakdown.  All living things will eventually wear out and reach a natural end, like the potato in image above.

The Western World is so obsessed with not dying that we sometimes forget to live. Knowing how best to keep our bodies healthy is important, but at some advanced age we should stop worrying about lifestyle elements that aren’t perfectly healthful, stop intrusive testing for things that **might** kill us, and just focus on living as well as we can given our circumstances.

Ms Ehrenreich excerpted parts of the book in her article in The Guardian 31-Mar-2018. In it, she addresses society’s compulsive need to blame someone for dying. Did they eat the wrong things? Drink too much? Exercise too little? Smoke? Stress over work?  Essentially, it’s the same issue we wrangle with lung cancer stigma, but applied to all health conditions.  Why does dying have to be someone’s fault? Reality is, we’re all going to die of something.

Another article in the Guardian interviewed Ms Ehrenreich about her perspective.  It starts with, “Four years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich, 76, reached the realisation that she was old enough to die. Not that the author, journalist and political activist was sick; she just didn’t want to spoil the time she had left undergoing myriad preventive medical tests or restricting her diet in pursuit of a longer life. While she would seek help for an urgent health issue, she wouldn’t look for problems.”

Those sentiments reflect my own thinking nowadays.  I recently had several preventative health appointments: annual physical, Hep C screening, 3D mammogram, gynecological exam, and colonoscopy. Some of the procedures  seem reasonable: for instance, a new vaccine can prevent more types of pneumonia (I know from experience that pneumonia reduces my quality of life), and having a polyp snipped is an effective and painless way to prevent colon cancer. However, I wonder if I should be spending money (mine as well as the insurance company’s) to undergo screening for cancers other than the one I’ve already got, given that I’m not sure I would undergo aggressive treatment for whatever they might find.  Chances are, my metastatic lung cancer will eventually recur, and sooner rather than later.  If the colonoscopy had detected advanced colon cancer, and my only option to treat it was radical surgery to remove a section of my colon, I’m not sure I’d do it given my lung cancer is not cured. If I have limited life remaining, why would I spend it recovering from a significant surgery that can’t cure me?

Each person will have their own answer to the question, “Am I old enough to die?” because each has their own set of priorities. I know some terminal cancer patients who would subject themselves to any level of discomfort in order to have more time with their small children. Others would find life is not worth living if they were unable to walk in the woods every day. Whether or not to undergo a cancer treatment should an individual’s decision based on personal priorities, overall health, effectiveness and quality of life impact of available treatments, and cost.  But at some point, regardless of our priorities or treatment decisions, death wins.  Many of us waste a lot of time, energy, and resources denying that fact.

For my two cents, Barbara Ehrenreich gets it right. I hope people listen to her and consider changing their perspective on life and death. It could make a big difference in their quality of life, and perhaps in the overall burden of healthcare costs as well.

I’m going to eat some chocolate now.

REFERENCES

Why are the poor blamed and shamed for their deaths?  (Barbara Ehrenreich, The Guardian, 31-Mar-2018)
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/mar/31/why-poor-blamed-shamed-their-deaths-barbara-ehrenreich

When do you know you’re old enough to die? Barbara Ehrenreich has some answers  (Lucy Rock, The Guardian, 7-Apr-2018)
https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/apr/07/barbara-ehrenreich-natural-causes-book-old-enough-to-die?

Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer  by Barbara Ehrenreich, available 10-Apr-2018 on Amazon.

 

Farewell, Stephen Hawking, and thanks

Physicist Stephen Hawking died yesterday at age 76. As a science geek, I was awed by his amazing intellect and ability to explain difficult science clearly. As a metastatic cancer patient, I admired how he made the most of life despite a crippling health condition and grim prognosis.

Below is reprint of a Facebook post (with permission) by feisty science fiction author Pat Cadigan, a friend and ovarian cancer patient. She also knows about making the most of life.

——

I never met Stephen Hawking, exactly. One day, I was in Covent Garden and as I walked along a sidewalk, two carers were getting him out of a specially-equipped van. I felt it would be inappropriate to stop and gush—the carers were in the act and I would have been interrupting. So I kept going—but I gave him a great big I-know-who-you-are-and-I-think-you’re-great smile. I like to think I saw a twinkle in his eye. I smiled at the carers, too, and they smiled back at me.

(Sometimes I think that they smiled at me because I didn’t look like I was pitying Prof. Hawking.)

When Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, he was given two years to live. He spun those two years into nearly half a century. This is practically unheard-of for people with motor neurone disease—it is a terrible, merciless condition that, at the time Hawking developed it, was not even as treatable as cancer. 76 is still too young an age to leave the building; I really hoped he would stay longer.

But while he was here, he made it count, even though he was unable to move, and then unable to speak for most of his life. His mind was lively, energetic, indomitable. He defied his circumstances and his prognosis. Hell, he even left his wife for his nurse—probably not his finest hour, but the heart wants what it wants, even when it’s confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak.

Most of us never achieve Hawking’s level of intellectual brilliance. But we can all try to ‘defy our prognosis,’ so to speak. We can confound expectations. We can make every moment count. We don’t have to accept what we’re told to accept. We don’t have to settle.

Maybe we won’t succeed in defying our prognosis, so to speak. But if we don’t try, we’ll never know.

You don’t have to lie down quietly. Even if you’re paralysed, you can go down swinging.

An opportunity to support patient-driven ROS1 cancer research

I hope you’ll support me and the Global ROS1 Initiative as we strive to accelerate research, find better treatments and hopefully cure ROS1 positive (ROS1+) cancer — which I have. Here’s a National Cancer Institute blog about the Initiative. This project is very dear to me.

If you’ve been meaning to contribute, or you have friends or family you’ve been meaning to ask to donate, do it today, or sometime before the end of the year!  The recently-signed US tax law revisions may affect whether you can claim a tax deduction for your charitable contributions after January 1, 2018.

GO TO MY FUNDRAISER BY CLICKING HERE:
Janet Freeman-Daily’s ROS1 Research Fundraiser

Thanks for supporting ROS1+ cancer research—you could help save someone’s life someday. For those who want more detail about the project and fundraiser, read on!

Why research ROS1 Cancer?

My type of cancer is driven by an alteration in the ROS1 gene. Medical research has made it possible for me to live well with aggressive, metastatic ROS1+ lung cancer since 2011. However, ROS1+ cancer is uncommon (only 1%-2% of lung and other cancers) and not well understood. Only one approved ROS1-targeted drug exists, and patients eventually develop resistance to it. Little is known about how this disease begins, progresses and develops resistance to treatment.

Is my donation tax-deductible?

This fundraiser directs funds to the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation (ALCF), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit (view their Guidestar page); monies are placed in an ALCF account designated for our ROS1 project. Donations  are tax deductible under US tax laws.

What is the Global ROS1 Initiative?

I helped to create the Global ROS1 Initiative, a unique collaboration between ROS1+ patients, caregivers, researchers, clinicians, and industry. This is the first-ever effort initiated by patients to focus on cancer driven by a single genomic alteration anywhere in the body. We are initially funding projects in the US (takes time to learn about international research collaboration), but our patient group is global, with patients in 19 countries to date.

How did the Global ROS1 Initiative get started?

Who are the Global ROS1 Initiative partners?

What research will the Global ROS1 Initiative fund?

Funds in the ROS1-designated account will be distributed by a panel of Global ROS1 Initiative representatives (including patients) to our projects. We are funding two projects at present:

  • A survey conducted through Stanford University, which collects personal and health history data on ROS1ders. Researchers will study the data to look for possible causes of ROS1+ cancer, and evaluate effectiveness and sequence of treatment options.
  • The ROS1 Cancer Model project, which is creating new models of ROS1+ cancer for drug development and research into our disease. In early 2017, only a few ROS1+ models existed, and they did not represent all the dozens of variations of ROS1+ cancer. In this project, we ROS1ders agree to donate our cancer tumor cells collected in the normal course of care to create cell lines and mouse models that researchers can use to study our disease.

How will the Global ROS1 Initiative accelerate research?

As part of our patient-driven approach, we aim to make our data and models widely available to the cancer research community instead of holding it in silos at individual institutions.  We will be creating a biorepository of our specimens with annotated patient data, including making use of patient registries (like the Lung Cancer Registry) that share de-identified data will validated researchers. The cancer models we create will be distributed at minimal cost to researchers.

The ROS1ders also help spread vetted information about ROS1+ cancers to patients, caregivers, and the public.  We donate our time to maintain and write content for the ros1cancer.com website  which shares up-to-date information about ROS1+ cancer, names of ROS1+ experts, known treatments and their approval status globally, and available clinical trials focused on ROS1+ cancers.  We also administer a private Facebook group in which ROS1+ patients and caregivers share their experiences, news about our cancer, and tips for living with our disease (more info on joining this group is here).

Finding Myself in Antiquity

Wonder why I’ve been relatively quiet online recently? I just returned from a 15-day “Cities of Antiquity” cruise in the Mediterranean aboard the Viking Star. This trip gave me a much-needed mental health break–I actually spent two whole weeks on something other than lung cancer (though I did sneak online for 10-20 minutes several days).

Since I was still rehabbing my foot, I used trekking poles on walking tours and my knee roller on the ship to avoid overdoing. My left foot did not swell or turn blue even on days when my fitbit clocked over 10,000 steps. The tours gave me the most exercise I’ve had in six months, which is probably why I didn’t gain any weight on the trip despite the abundance of food, tempting desserts, and wide variety of gelato flavors.

Lots of perspective and leasons learned to be found in other cultures’ 3000+ years of history.  We visited Athens, some Greek islands (among them Mikonos and Rhodes), Cyprus, Israel (Jerusalem, Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee), Naples, Pompeii, and Rome. It was well worth yesterday’s 29-hour travel day (Rome to Seattle) and the upper respiratory infection that followed me home.

More pictures to come.