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Bill Farwinkle (a fictional patient) and his wife Judy are seated in two chairs in the exam room as I enter, introduce myself, and take a seat in front of the evil, glowing screen that often dominates physician/patient interactions these days. I have read through the urologist’s excellent intake notes as well as those from the radiation oncologist he saw earlier in the week. It is clear that he has been told most, if not all, of the information about his options for treating a Gleason 4+3 cancer found in 6/12 cores, plus the suspicion of a solitary metastasis in his left ilium. So, I start by asking him to tell me about his goals for today’s visit. As soon as it is convenient in the visit, I move the conversation to what he enjoyed about his import business and what he is doing with his retirement, and from there, just let them ask the questions he or Judy are most concerned about. It takes an hour more or less.
These intimate encounters are the raison d’être of my 4 decades of medical practice. Trying desperately to keep up with the molecular biology of how a loss of PTEN or the presence of a mutation in one of the many DNA damage repair genes, never mind any of the multigene panels that could be ordered, hovers over each encounter as I ponder my role in helping an individual navigate a frightening diagnosis or a change in his clinical picture. Before reading any further in this post, I hereby assign you (as is my duty, being a professor after all…) this reading assignment: “Don’t Tell Me When I’m Going to Die” (You need to click on that title and read the short article before continuing).
The promise of “precision medicine” is all the rage currently. For example, in this week’s NEJM there is an article on re-adding the clinical risk parameters to the 21-gene recurrence score now in standard use for certain breast cancer patients. In the accompanying editorial, Hunter and Longo (discussing the complexities imposed by combining clinical and genomic attributes) state, “Within these groups, both physicians and patients will have to face substantial uncertainty, and ‘educated guesses’ informed by multiple sources of evidence as well as by clinical acumen will continue to be necessary even in the age of precision medicine…”
And so, when “Mr. Farwinkle” looks me in the eye at the end of our hour and says, “I suppose you know what I’m going to ask next…” I’m fully prepared to do my best, but in my heart I realize that medicine remains an art. Does he realize that his parents’ longevity, his smoking history, his cholesterol and blood pressure, and his willingness to exercise may play as much a role as the Gleason score or any genomic tests? “How long have I got, doc?” The question hangs there as I ponder how to answer.
We all share the same prognosis: Our time is fleeting, “threescore and ten, I remember well” as Shakespeare quotes in Macbeth. How to factor in the possibility that enzalutamide or abiraterone, a PARP inhibitor, or even an immuno-oncology agent that blocks the PD-1 pathway may affect this truth by a few months or even a year or two is on the one hand hopeful, and on the other, probably irrelevant. If only I could be as eloquent as Paul Kalanithi, the author of “When Breath Becomes Air“. In his original submission to the NY Times, when he was discussing coming to grips with his own cancer diagnosis, he stated, “What patients seek is not scientific knowledge doctors hide, but existential authenticity each must find on her own. Getting too deep into statistics is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water. The angst of facing mortality has no remedy in probability.”
And so I answer the Farwinkles. “I think you are going to be fine. Regardless of your decision as to what therapy we choose, you are likely to have a good outcome initially for several years, and I will be here for you. We can get through this together and we will take great care of you. But just as I have to remind myself, every day is a gift and we should live it like there won’t be unlimited tomorrows.”
Nothing has really changed for him. Or for me. I look forward to getting to know this family better…