The numbers are stark. According to the United States Preventive Services Task Force, for every man whose death from prostate cancer is prevented through PSA screening, 40 become impotent or suffer incontinence problems, two have heart attacks and one a blood clot. Then there’s the psychological harm of a “false positive” test result, which is 80 percent of all “positive” tests. They lead to unnecessary worry, follow-up biopsies, physical discomfort and even harm. Final grade: D.
Three men close to me have been diagnosed with prostate cancer late in life. Each was around 70. My dad, already in throes of advancing Alzheimer’s disease, did what the doctor ordered (actually, I suspect my mom told my dad to do what the doctor ordered). He had surgery. And for the last six years of his life, which until his final three months was at home, she cleaned up after him because of his incontinence. My neighbor made the same choice. He quietly admitted to me one day that he suffers from similar symptoms, but he is grateful because he believes his life was saved by the operation. And my friend Arnie? I’ve written about him in this space before. He was diagnosed at 70, and being a psychiatrist with a strong sense of his own sexual being, understood the potential tradeoffs. He decided to forgo treatment. He died a few years ago at 90. I never learned the cause.
So what does it mean that PSA testing gets a D rating?
First, a confession: I like to watch reality TV. Not all reality TV, not often. (I wish I could say, as I would about a junky magazine, “I saw it at the hairdresser” or “ . . . while I was waiting in line at the supermarket.” But no — I sit in my living room, turn on the TV, and choose the station. I take full responsibility. Though I do also use the time to fold laundry.)
The show I’ve gotten hooked on lately is called “Giuliana and Bill.” Giuliana and Bill are on TV because they are famous for being on TV — she as a host of E! News and he as a winner of “The Apprentice.” Their eponymous reality show, about the ups and downs of their marriage, is a marvel of glitzy minutiae. Giuliana and Bill are just like us, only with a lot more Hermès accessories. They bicker; they smooch; they argue about what to have for dinner; they host New Year’s Eve in Times Square. It’s “reality” — life’s big and little moments, carefully staged to seem breezy and spontaneous. But what has hooked me on the show this year is that “reality” has suddenly collided with reality: Giuliana’s diagnosis of breast cancer.
Giuliana and Bill started as a show about newlyweds who wanted to have a baby. But the couple wrestled with infertility, and an IVF pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Before proceeding with another round of fertility treatment their doctor insisted on a mammogram.
Breast cancer was diagnosed last October; and after Giuliana’s lumpectomies failed to produce cancer-free margins, she and Bill had to decide what to do next.
We’re halfway through the most challenging cycles of chemotherapy, Kathy has lost her hair, and her fatigue is getting worse but her mood is still very positive.
On Friday January 20th, Kathy received Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) 1200 mg, Doxorubicin (Adriamycin) 120 mg and her pre-chemotherapy supportive medications Fosaprepitant 150 mg, Dexamethasone 12 mg and Ondansetron 8 mg.
She tolerated it well.
Her Complete Blood Count shows that her Granulocyte Count has dropped from 6690 to 3610 since the chemotherapy affects her fast multiplying white cells as a side effect of targeting the cancer. Her hematocrit has fallen from 42 to 32. She tires more easily but her appetite is good. Small frequent meals enable her to overcome any GI symptoms.
We’ve been told that the Adriamycin/Cytoxan is the most difficult chemotherapy. Only two more cycles to go.
The photograph above shows Kathy and me at age 21 in our Stanford graduation photo. She’s always had long, luxuriant hair, even a waist length braid at one point.
On January 21st, her hair began falling out in clumps. It was not exactly painful, but felt very odd, as if her hair had not been washed in months and just did not lie on her scalp properly. In consultation with her cancer survivor friends, she decided to shave it off. Her hairdresser gave her a “GI Jane” cut realizing that the small hairs left will fall out soon, but in a more manageable and comfortable way. I seriously considered shaving my head in solidarity, but she asked me not to.
The health care cost debate takes place on two stages using two languages, one scientific, the other economic. The net result is a failure to communicate.
The scientific texts emanated over the weekend from the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago. Ongoing clinical trials showed that science has come up with new drugs that can reduce the incidence of breast cancer and prolong life for people with skin cancer. The former is an estrogen inhibitor that would have to be taken by tens of millions of older women to have a major impact on reducing the rate of breast cancer. The latter would only be given to a subset of the 68,000 new cases of melanoma each year, and would extend life from a few months to a few years for some of the 7,700 who die from the disease each year. Again, most of those people are older, although there are a number of younger people, especially young women, who disproportionately get advanced skin cancer.
For both groups, the cost to the health care system when these drugs are approved, as they inevitably will be, will be calculated in the billions. Medicare will pick up the lion’s share of the tab, since most of the patients in both groups will be over 65.
Now let’s step around the corner to stage two, where the debate in this morning’s papers (if you read the Washington Post and New York Times every day, as I do) is over Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program. Paul Samuelson, the top economics columnist in the Post, essentially endorses the plan saying “under Ryan’s plan, incentive would shift. Medicare would no longer be an open ATM; the vouchers would limit total spending.” What he doesn’t say is that it would only limit total spending by government. It would require seniors to pick up a growing share of the bill, and limit their own purchasing of health care, either by purchasing plans that didn’t cover expensive end-of-life care, or simply denying themselves routine treatments to avoid co-pays and deductibles.Continue reading…