Many of you know that eight months ago I was diagnosed with Stage IV inflammatory breast cancer, which has spread to my spine. My incurable diagnosis means that I live with a chronic disease, just like millions of older adults. Life continues to be fairly routine with work, play, friends, and family. One of my routines occurs on the first Monday of each month, when I visit the Maimonides Cancer Center for an infusion of drugs designed to slow the cancer’s impact on my bones. The center is cheerful. The staff greets me by name and hands me a buzzer that vibrates when I am next, the same buzzer you get at your local Olive Garden. Each month I see many of the same people receiving their treatments. I have already figured out who likes Dr. Phil, the local news channel, or a good book as they dutifully absorb their chemotherapy regimen.
One woman in particular caught my eye, perhaps because she is elderly and frail—just the kind of person that the Hartford Foundation is dedicated to helping. She appears to be in her eighties. Standing less than five feet tall, she walks in slowly and carefully, a pink crocheted cap on her head, accompanied each time by her son. Over the course of her infusion, her color fades. She leaves more frail than she came in. Each visit, she is visibly worse.
Of course I know that chemotherapy almost always causes short-term debilitation. But looking at this older woman, I can’t help but wonder. Did her clinicians talk to her and her son about her prognosis and the relative benefit of the chemotherapy? Did they understand the risks and benefits of aggressive versus palliative treatment? Maybe they do understand, and the chemotherapy will cure the cancer after months of misery, making it all worthwhile. But maybe not.
Filed Under: The Insider's Guide To Health CareTagged: Amy Berman, Cancer, Chemotherapy, Death and dying Jul 29, 2011