The conversation you should have with your doctor if you have metastatic cancer
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
A cancer diagnosis is extremely shocking news, but it is even more difficult when the cancer has come back after you thought it was gone, or if it spread somewhere else. When it spreads, it is called "metastatic," because it is no longer in the organ that it started in. Most cancers spread in the blood stream, but they can also grow into organs around the site of the original tumor. When someone has cancer in other areas of the body, the usual treatment is chemotherapy. We use drugs that go throughout the bloodstream (intravenous chemotherapy), because we want the medicine to circulate throughout the body and kill any cancer cells that may be present in all areas of the body. When someone receives all of this shocking news, it is very difficult to be able to think about all the questions one may have.
There was a recent research study in a very well respected medical journal where the authors polled patients who had metastatic colon cancer or lung cancer, and they asked them about what they expected the chemotherapy to do. Most people expected that the drugs would work completely and that they would be cancer-free, or completely cured of their disease.
Unfortunately, the reality of cancer treatment is that most people really never become fully cancer free. The chemotherapy slows down the growth of the cancer, but the patient still has cancer, and it usually comes back at some point. The authors felt that because the patients didn't understand this, they weren't able to prepare for it and might have made different decisions if they had more realistic expectations about their treatment.
Physicians believe that a strong, optimistic attitude is a great asset to have when patients are dealing with difficult situations. However, we also believe that patients should understand their treatment to be able to make decisions that are best. If we are aware of a patient's preferences, we can truly work in partnership with our patients to achieve their end of life goals.
Erik Johnson, MD, FACS, is Board Certified in general surgery and in colon and rectal surgery, and practices at Aurora BayCare Medical Center. Dr. Johnson received his education at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and completed two fellowships, one at Ferguson Clinic in colorectal and one at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in oncology. Learn more here.