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Tag: Cancer

Choosing Alternative Medicine

After a terribly painful and debilitating illness, Steve died.  He had been treated for Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Disease with a series of intense therapies including German enzymes, American antineoplastins, Mexican naturopathy and Chinese Herbs, complemented by focused meditation, innumerable vitamins, extreme diet modification and acupuncture for severe pain.  He fought the cancer with every ounce of his being, doing everything to survive, except the one thing that had an 85% chance of cure; chemotherapy.

I was struck this week by a comment on my website, which bemoaned the highly disorganized state of “alternative medicine” in this Country and in particular the “paltry sums” for alternative research funding by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The writer suggested that not only could the quality of health be improved with alternative medicine studies, but would go a long way towards saving health care dollars.

It seems to me that the idea that we need more Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) research goes right to the core of the confusion between so called “conventional medicine” and CAM.  There is a major difference between the medicine practiced by board certified, classically trained physicians and that of alternative practitioners.  That difference is research and data.

If an MD or DO is treating a cancer patient and that patient asks to see or understand the basic science and clinical studies which support the recommended therapy, that published data is readily available. Standard oncology treatment goes through 10-20 years of research, from the test tube, animal studies and through a series of supervised human multi-phase trials, until it is approved and offered to patients. Each step is refereed by competing and critical PhD and physician scientists and must be published in peer-edited journals for general review and criticism, all of which is public and transparent. Where it is not, and when people attempt to manipulate or falsify the system or data, massive blowback eventually occurs.

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Replacing Lance

We need heroes.  Heroes show us light in the darkness, the way to the miraculous and ignite a fire in our soul to survive.  They prove what is truly possible, through the fog of the impossible.  We mourn the disgrace of Lance Armstrong because he seems to have achieved Pyrrhic victory.  Let us not doubt; whatever his frailty as a man, Armstrong vanquished a terrible foe; moreover the path blazed is not bare, for everywhere are cancer heroes.

The 45 year old RN raising her children while she works full time in a pediatric intensive care unit, celebrates her eighth year in remission from pancreatic cancer, treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

The grandmother who ignored a breast mass for two years so she could care for four disabled grandchildren, and when the tumor grew to be massive, continues to take care of the children while receiving chemotherapy.

The hospital chaplain who has suffered from cancer, sits at the bedside holding a hand, sharing a smile, saying a prayer that is heard deep in the heart and to the heavens above.

The 71 year old with four different cancers, treated with a bewildering mix of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, whose primary worry is the cardiac care of her husband.

The 64 year old rescue squad volunteer while receiving chemotherapy and radiation for extensive lung cancer, assists 150 people to flee from their homes and escape the wrath of Sandy.

The national lymphoma expert, who could be wealthy in his own clinic, instead devotes his life to teaching and research, believing he can save more lives by consulting and advising oncologists in communities around the country.

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About Time? Smokers Face Tough New Rules Under Obamacare

The Affordable Care Act contains a number of provisions intended to incent “personal responsibility,” or the notion that health care isn’t just a right — it’s an obligation. None of these measures is more prominent than the law’s individual mandate, designed to ensure that every American obtains health coverage or pays a fine for choosing to go uninsured.

But one provision that’s gotten much less attention — until recently — relates to smoking; specifically, the ACA allows payers to treat tobacco users very differently by opening the door to much higher premiums for this population.

That measure has some health policy analysts cheering, suggesting that higher premiums are necessary to raise revenue for the law and (hopefully) deter smokers’ bad habits. But other observers have warned that the ACA takes a heavy-handed stick to smokers who may be unhappily addicted to tobacco, rather than enticing them with a carrot to quit.

Under proposed rules, HHS would allow insurers to charge a smoker seeking health coverage in the individual market as much as 50% more in premiums than a non-smoker.

That difference in premiums may rapidly add up for smokers, given the expectation that Obamacare’s new medical-loss ratios already will lead to major cost hikes in the individual market. “For many people, in the years after the law, premiums aren’t just going to [go] up a little,” Peter Suderman predicts at Reason. “They’re going to rise a lot.”

Meanwhile, Ann Marie Marciarille, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, adds that insurers have “considerable flexibility” in how to set up a potential surcharge for tobacco use. For example, insurers could apply a high surcharge for tobacco use in older smokers — perhaps several hundred dollars per month — further hitting a population that tends to be poorer.

Is this cost-shifting fair? The average American tends to think so.

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Heroes and Villains

“Lance Armstrong is a bad guy who has done some very good things.”

These are the words of a sports radio personality I listened to yesterday. He was obviously commenting on the confession (to my pal Oprah) by Armstrong about his use of performance enhancing drugs. The sportscaster, along with many I heard talk on the subject, were not as upset by the fact that Armstrong used the banned substances, or his lies on the subject, but the way he went after anyone who accused him of what turned out to be the truth. Armstrong used his position of fame and power, along with his significant wealth, to attack the credibility of people in both the media and in the courtroom. The phrase, “he destroyed people’s lives” has been used frequently when describing his reaction to accusations.

It’s a horrible thing he did, and shows an incredibly self-centered man who thought the world should bend to his whim. It’s more proof to the adage: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

But simply dismissing Lance as a cad or a horrible person would be far easier if not for the other side of his life. In his public battle against cancer, he inspired many facing that disease to not give up their battle. Even for those who eventually lost, the encouragement many got from Armstrong’s story was significant. On top of that, the Livestrong foundation did much to raise money and awareness for cancer and for other significant health issues. This foundation exists because of the heroic story of Lance’s successful battle to beat cancer, as well as his subsequent cycling victories. Whatever the lies he told in the process, he did beat cancer and he did win the Tour de France multiple times.

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Advances In Cancer 2012

The 30,000 member American Society of Clinical Oncology is the world’s leading group of cancer physicians. ASCO is dedicated to curing cancer, supporting research, quality care, reducing treatment disparities and a heightened national focus on value. This month they released their annual Report on Progress Against Cancer, which highlights research, drug development and cancer care innovations.  This hundred-page document is important reading for anyone who wants to be up-to-date regarding cancer care.

Cancer related deaths in the United States are dropping, but still totaled 577,000 in 2012.  While world cancer research funding is rising, in the USA it continues to decrease, with the purchasing power of the largest funding source, the National Cancer Institute, having fallen 20% in the last decade, and a further 8% cut slated for January 1, 2013.   Development is dependent on government and private funding, as well as the willingness of more than 25,000 patients a year who volunteer to be involved in cancer trials.  All these critical supports are threatened. The Federal Clinical Trials Cooperative of the National Cancer Institute (FCLC, NCI) supports research at 3100 institutions in the USA.

The report discusses the many types of cancer which continue to be naturally resistant to cancer treatment, particularly chemotherapy.  In some cases, drugs do not penetrate a part of the body, such as the brain, in other cases even when they reach the tumor, they are not effective.  In such cancers the genetic code of the cancer cells has mutated (changed) such that the particular drug does not kill the cancer.  In 2012, there was increased interest in attacking each cancer cell at multiple targets either by using a single drug, which attacks in several different ways, or multiple drugs at the same time.  This concept improved cancer killing in GIST, colon cancer, certain lymphomas (ALCL) and medullary thyroid cancer.  In addition, unique targeted compounds, such as “tyrosine kinase inhibitors,” show increasing benefit in leukemia, sarcoma and breast cancer.

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Can Big Data Save My Dad From Cancer?

My father, Foster Hill, has stage III prostate cancer.

At 69 years old, he is a quiet man who was often told in his younger days that he resembled Muhammad Ali. He immigrated in his twenties to Canada from the small Caribbean nation of Antigua to look for opportunities beyond sugar cane and the tourism trade.

My father became a chemical technician for well-known oil refineries, while staying true to his real passion in life – playing organ music. Every Sunday, as he has since I can first remember, he plays the largest church organ in Sarnia, near Lake Huron, where he lives with my mother.

Like many men of his generation, he has always been wary for the medical system. For decades he avoided the test, known as PSA, that screens for prostate cancer. In September of this year, driven by pain he could no longer ignore, he went to his doctor who discovered a rock-hard prostate gland. The diagnosis, stage III prostate cancer, means that the cancer has already begun to spread, but is still potentially treatable.

Now retired, his long hours practicing the organ are punctuated with doctor visits to receive Lupron hormone therapy. The good news? The therapy is working. For now.

We don’t know what lies ahead. The first round of Lupron therapy is often effective, but a significant number of patients later develop a resistance to the drug.

The battle against my father’s cancer has only just begun.

This is where Big Data in healthcare can become a true lifesaver. Typically, in medicine, we know only what works for the majority of patients, not what will work for an individual. However, with enough data from enough people – we are talking hundreds of thousands, and sometimes, even millions of patients – we can apply analytics to build predictive models to discover which interventions will work. For the last twelve years, it has been my job to make that happen.

As CEO and founder of GNS Healthcare, I oversee a team of mathematicians, biologists, and data scientists as they crunch and decode healthcare data to unlock the mysteries of what treatment will work for specific patients.

My father’s cancer has given these efforts a new urgency and has raised a new question: Can I use Big Data to save my father’s life?

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The Only Way Out of the Health Care Wilderness

The landmark 2001 document from the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM), Crossing the Quality Chasm, should have guided us out of the healthcare cost-quality crisis. It argued that the root cause of our difficulties has been a failure to meet the needs of patients with chronic disease. We have not solved this crisis because we have almost entirely ignored the recommendations for reform found in that document.

The claim that we have the best healthcare in the world is correct only if you have an acute condition. If you are having an event, such as a heart attack, our system can provide an emergency stent — for as much as $50,000 — that will open the blocked artery, immediately relieving the pain and saving your life. We are really good at rescue medicine-crisis medicine.

But acute conditions generate enormous costs only because we have not addressed the chronic condition earlier, interrupting the disease progression that produces the acute events. Since most healthcare cost growth over the past 2 decades has been related to patients with 4 or more chronic conditions, this should be recognized as the foremost issue in healthcare reform.

In fact, the IOM charged that, despite the central role of chronic disease in most pain, disability, death, and cost, care continues to be designed around the needs of providers and institutions, and most patients with chronic conditions do not receive the care they need. A 17-year lag in implementing new scientific findings results in highly variable care.

That cardiologists favor coronary stenting over optimal medical therapy — that is, managing vascular disease using $4 drugs and recommended lifestyle changes — provides a powerful case in point.

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To DNR or Not to DNR

Here is a little appreciated fact: Patients cannot order medical care; they can only accept or refuse it.

Only a doctor can order medical treatment.  In an extreme medical situation, the doctor can offer CPR, but it is the patient’s job to accept or reject.

Any patient can refuse CPR.  This refusal is known as Do Not Resuscitate or DNR, and for obvious reasons needs to be made ahead of time. The question is, when is making the decision to be DNR appropriate?

A further definition is needed.  DNR (and its colleague, Do Not Intubate, DNI) is not the same as DNT, or Do Not Treat.  A patient, at their discretion, may receive maximal medical care, including drugs, dialysis and surgery, and still be DNR.  The DNR order in that situation is simply a line that the patient will not allow the doctors to cross.  “Do everything you can to help me, but if it fails I do not want to end my life on a machine or with some gorilla pounding on my chest.”

On the other hand, a DNR can be a part of a hospice or palliative care program, so that all care is focused on comfort and not treatment.  It is even possible, in very unusual circumstances, to receive hospice care without being DNR.  A DNR order is like any medical decision, it can be changed if appropriate.  DNR is not the same as “pulling the plug.”

How aggressive to be in receiving medical care is a personal decision.  In order to make certain that our individual desires are followed it is critical that, as much as possible, these decisions be made ahead of time.  This avoids panic, confusion, and guilt.  In that spirit, let us review a few cases.

Ben is a 54-year-old gentleman with lung cancer, which has spread to bones and liver and is growing despite the third chemotherapy.  His doctors inform him that a fourth chemotherapy has a 5% chance of helping him and a 20% chance of killing him.  He wants to try the chemo.  His physician says, “OK Ben, we will order the chemo but if things fall apart and your body starts to fail and we cannot fix it, do you want to be put on a machine?”  Do you think Ben should make himself DNR?

Ben made himself DNR.  He survived the chemo, but the cancer progressed and he died one month later.

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Cigarettes Should Cost $25 a Pack

Henry David Thoreau said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

We have hacked at healthcare costs for what seems like thousands of times, with very limited success. It is time to strike at the root. Rather than focus on reducing costs after preventable diseases have taken hold, it is time to focus attention on eliminating the disease.

Let us look at two specific examples.

1. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has estimated that the cost of smoking(estimated cost of smoking-related medical expenses and loss of productivity) exceeds $167 billion annually. The CDC has also estimated that 326 billion cigarettes (combustible tobacco, to be more precise) went up in smoke in 2011. In other words, every cigarette consumed costs the nation about 50 cents; every pack, $10.

Put another way, while the smoker paid approximately $5 a pack up front, there was also an additional $10 secret surcharge — the cost of which is born by all of us (such as taxpayers, anyone who buys health insurance, even private companies who suffer from lower productivity as a result). It is as if we are telling the smoker, “I know you can’t afford to pay $15 for a pack. So we will give you $10 so you can afford to smoke.” We are not this generous even with people who don’t have one square meal a day. We spent $78 billion on food stamps, with constant pressure to bring that down further even if some people will be left without food as a result.

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End of the Line in the ICU

Last year I graduated from nursing school and began working in a specialized intensive care unit in a large academic hospital. During an orientation class a nurse who has worked on the unit for six years gave a presentation on the various kinds of strokes. Noting the difference between supratentorial and infratentorial strokes—the former being more survivable and the latter having a more severe effect on the body’s basic functions such as breathing—she said that if she were going to have a stroke, she knew which type she would prefer: “I would want to have an infratentorial stroke. Because I don’t even want to make it to the hospital.”

She wasn’t kidding, and after a couple months of work, I understood why. I also understood the nurses who voice their advocacy of natural death—and their fear of ending up like some of our patients—in regular discussions of plans for DNRtattoos. For example: “I am going to tattoo DO NOT RESUSCITATE across my chest. No, across my face, because they won’t take my gown off. I am going to tattoo DO NOT INTUBATE above my lip.”

Another nurse says that instead of DNR, she’s going to be DNA, Do Not Admit.

We know that such plainly stated wishes would never be honored. Medical personnel are bound by legal documents and orders, and the DNR tattoo is mostly a very dark joke. But the oldest nurse on my unit has instructed her children never to call 911 for her, and readily discusses her suicide pact with her husband.

You will not find a group less in favor of automatically aggressive, invasive medical care than intensive care nurses, because we see the pointless suffering it often causes in patients and families. Intensive care is at best a temporary detour during which a patient’s instability is monitored, analyzed, and corrected, but it is at worst a high tech torture chamber, a taste of hell during a person’s last days on earth.

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