Christopher Lukas Health Guide
  • The other night, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center held a Survivor’s Day. It’s billed as the National Survivor’s Day, but I’m not sure how wide-spread the attendees are. There were about 200 survivors in the large auditorium, and about 20 staff, more or less. I was asked to speak, as was Harry Smith, anchor of CBS’s The Early Show.

    Dr. Robert Wittes, physician-in-chief of MSKCC, said that the purpose of the day (the third annual such event) was to pay attention to the fact that more and more cancer patients will live (i.e, “survive”) with their disease, longer and longer; and that hospitals and other treatment facilities are learning that their duty is not just to treat or (if possible) cure patients, but to go through their survival with them.
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    What does this mean? It means paying attention to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of patients who are either in remission or have been effectively cured of their disease. It means establishing post-treatment resource centers at hospitals (MSKCC long ago did that) and getting survivors of cancer to come use those centers: whether to receive massage and acupuncture, group support, or psychological counseling.

    It also means getting physicians and nurses to consider the survivor as a continuing patient; not to shuffle them off with a “we’ve done our best, the rest is up to you. Have a good life.”
    As a filmmaker who has created videos dealing with hospice and care of seriously ill patients, I am well aware of the phrase, “There’s nothing more we can do.” It served to tell a patient, or his family, that treatment for a terminal illness was no longer going to be fruitful. Now, doctors are learning to say, there’s plenty more that can be done: hospice, palliative care, continuing attention to your needs.

    Nowhere is this less understood than in the arena of easily treatable (or curable) cancers. Many physicians feel they have done their duty by cutting or radiating diseases like prostate cancer. But we, the patient, are not so easily satisfied. A friend of mine who had prostate cancer (surgery) attends a self-help group at Memorial because he feels that the issues that were raised by his cancer are not settled. It is to both his – and MSKCC’s – credit that ongoing needs of this group of survivors is attended to.

    Most prostate cancer patients will, with luck, become survivors of prostate cancer. It is – for most of us – not something that will kill us. If we want to get attention to our survivorship, we may have to bug our hospitals, physicians, and other caregivers to pay attention. With limited time, they may feel it is more necessary to treat the ongoing cancers with which they are confronted. But survivors can become patients again; and survivors have needs – psychological, physical, and spiritual – that aren’t as easily excised as a cancerous gland; aren’t radiated with the 35 days of high-dose rays; aren’t hormoned away.

    You know what they are: they’re the continuing anxiety that “it may come back” or another cancer will show up, or your wife/partner won’t love you any more.

  • If you pay attention to your needs, you can get in on the trend that Dr. Wittes referred to – the trend that says, survivors are important people with important needs.
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Published On: August 02, 2006