[Cancer Knowledge Network] What September Means to Me

This article is also available at the Cancer Knowledge Network.

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Painting wooden figures is an all-time favorite craft for kids at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Five years ago, a little boy with no hair sat beside me, splotching gobs of glittery paint atop a dragon made of wood. I don’t remember the boy’s name, but I remember his face, his kind eyes. When his mom came to get him from the playroom after he had been discharged, he turned to me. “This is for you,” he said. And before I could respond, he had bolted out of the playroom and was halfway down the hall, his left arm reaching up with little fingers curled tight around his mother’s hand.

I will never forget how moving it was for me, how touched I was by his altruism. This little boy, genuinely selfless, didn’t think twice about giving me his carefully crafted creation. He wanted a complete stranger to have it. Children like him inspire me.

September may be half over, but not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Throughout my journey in medicine, although childhood cancer has been a cause that I’ve been passionate about for many years now, I have tried to keep an open mind about my career selection. But I’m the kind of person who has always known what I’ve wanted. This is who I am, and this is what I am about. I am determined, now more than ever before, to pursue a career in pediatric oncology and palliative care. I want nothing more than to dedicate myself to improving the lives of these children and their families in any way that I can.

But September is not about me. September is about all the children around the world diagnosed with cancer. All the loving parents devastated by the news. The siblings struggling to understand. The families that suffer so deeply. September is just one month, and 30 days is not nearly enough.

Let’s face it. It’s not ok. It’s not ok that so many children, instead of starting school this September, are being diagnosed with cancer. So many children are spending their days in and out of hospitals instead of in classrooms and outside playing tag at recess.

September reminds me just how important the cause of childhood cancer is to me, and how important it should be to all of us. Childhood Cancer Awareness Month celebrates the great strides that we have made in caring for children with cancer, and at the same time looks ahead at the great challenges that remain. This month calls for reflection, about how the landscapes of awareness, research, policy, and clinical care have all evolved with time. And, how much farther we still have to go.

The dragon sits atop my bookshelf. It reminds me every day of the little boy who taught me how to be selfless, who showed me the meaning of altruism even if he didn’t know what the word means.

So many of these young patients and their families have touched me over the years. I hope that I can someday return the favor, that I can touch the lives of those affected by childhood cancer with my own version of “glittery dragons.”

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Filed under Chronicling Childhood Cancer: Illuminating the Illness Experience through Narrative, Miscellaneous Musings

[Cancer Knowledge Network] Talking to your Child about Death and More

This article is also available at the Cancer Knowledge Network.

“What is cancer?”

“Something you can die from,” an adolescent in remission once told me.

He later described his treatment to me, saying, “if it weren’t for the treatment, I would’ve been….” His voice trailed off as he swiped a finger across his neck and made a krrr sound. “It’s true,” he concluded, nodding.

This teen, in this moment, chose to express himself outside of words. He had been comfortable defining cancer explicitly in relation to “death” before, so why did his words falter now? I remember being taken aback by this symbolic beheading, an action fraught with connotations of cancer as both violent but also punitive. I wondered how many other children associated cancer with death, how many felt as though they were receiving a death sentence when diagnosed.

In a world where cancer is one of the leading causes of death for adults, it’s no wonder why many people instinctively associate cancer with dying. With cancer as a disease commonly in the spotlight in society—with Cancer Moonshot and other awareness efforts towards prevention, treatment, and cure ever-present in the media—I worry that many kids have fears of death earlier on that often go unaddressed. A fear of death can be held by any young person with cancer, even those with highly treatable forms.

With these high cure rates for some childhood cancers, I can understand why discussions about dying may not immediately enter into the picture. I feel like conversations about death and dying often happen late in the course of treatment, sometimes as they should. That being said, I think it’s important for children to feel comfortable voicing any concerns that they may have about what it means to have cancer as a young person.

This conversation illustrated to me the importance of understanding a child’s fears upon diagnosis and throughout the course of treatment. Another teen I spoke with defined cancer as “[s]omething… that… makes you special…” I asked her how, and she proceeded to explain “cause…I don’t know. Cause, you get to meet a lot of people with that and not a lot of people are able to do that.” To her, cancer was something that she valued. She appreciated the people that she was able to meet because of her cancer. Her perspective on cancer was less antagonistic and more thankful for the good that had come out of her diagnosis.

This, to me, is one of the reasons that palliative care and child life support early in a child’s cancer diagnosis can be especially instrumental. These specialists devote a great deal of attention to a patient’s understanding and ability to cope with a cancer diagnosis. Since cancer can mean something entirely different to each and every individual, taking the time to focus on a patient’s perspective on cancer can improve a young person’s quality of life and enhance healing.

Simply asking can make all the difference: What does having cancer mean to you? How do you feel about your cancer treatments? What worries you about the future? From open-ended discussions to coping activities, palliative care and child life specialists are equipped with tools to delve into the psychosocial complexities of a cancer diagnosis, be it a fear of death or a new perspective on life. But these are questions any provider can ask; anyone can express an interest in the many ways cancer permeates into one’s life. By asking, we can show youth that we care.

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Judith Hannan: Missing Voices in Narrative Medicine

It is my honor to feature this blog post by Judith Hannan, author of Motherhood Exaggerated and The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live With and Beyond Illness.

Recently, I participated in a Narrative Medicine workshop at Columbia University. This mini-version of the groundbreaking Masters in Narrative Medicine program created by Dr. Rita Charon posits that the literary arts—close reading, close listening, and writing—are a necessary adjunct to the medical arts to ensure compassionate, ethical, and high quality health care. Academics spoke about gathering and interpreting patient narratives, doctors led us in analyzing stories, and writers and film specialists examined work depicting the intersection of life and medicine. Missing was the voice of the patient unfiltered through the view of the doctor, professor, or writer.

I felt this absence again in Andrew Solomon’s otherwise excellent article in the April 26, 2016 issue of The Guardian. The title of his piece is “Literature about medicine may be all that can save us: A new generation of doctor writers is investigating the mysteries of the medical profession, exploring the vital intersection between science and art.” Is Solomon saying that only narratives by doctors have a place within the practice of medicine? And who is us? Is it medical professionals, patients, the general population? Are patient narratives being co-opted by the very people trying so hard to bring dimensionality to the people they are healing?

I am not a medical professional. I am a writer and teacher who focuses on stories of physical or mental illness from the point-of-view of the patient, caregiver, or family member. Writing my memoir, Motherhood Exaggerated, is what allowed me to understand how I had become transformed as a mother during my then eight-year-old daughter’s treatment for cancer and her early years of survival. For readers, the book gave them permission to tell their own stories. They brought me their tales like presents which heretofore had no one to unwrap them. It was then that I realized that the field of narrative medicine either had to expand to include the patient/caregiver voice or we need to create a new field—maybe narrative healing—not just to embrace but to elevate the value of these stories.

In a June 29, 2010 New York Times article, Dr. Abigail Zuger asked whether memoirs of illness should be held to the same standard as other writing. “Perhaps,” she said, “these books serve a different purpose from the usual book for the writer and the reader.” My second book, The Write Prescription: Telling Your Story to Live With and Beyond Illness, is a response to Zuger’s question. Personal reflection and intimate prompts help writers enter into their stories where they will find healing, not by moving on from the trauma that has occurred in their lives, but by discovering how to move with it. Unlike Zuger, though, I think all writers should tell their stories well, not for the purposes of publication or to attract more readers, but because better writing will result in greater insight and transformation. It is the difference between a recitation of what happened and placing those events within the larger context of a life, between cliché and a unique voice, between venting and discovering, between momentary catharsis and more lasting change.

Aspiring toward literary excellence will mean that the genre of illness narrative will broaden in appeal. Like any good book, the reader will both find a piece of him or herself as well as acquire a larger view of what it means to be human. And it will give control to the person whose story it is to tell. In “Fraying at the Edges,” (New York Times, May 1, 2016) N.R. Kleinfield creates an exquisite portrait of Geri Taylor during the years immediately after her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. As Taylor talks about how so many services emphasize the caregiver and the later stages of the disease, she expresses a similar desire for control. “We don’t want to be done to, we want to do.”

This is an important message for anyone in the healing profession. Yes, doctors should continue drawing out the stories of their patients’ lives, they should continue writing and sharing their own humanity. But patient narratives have their own place. Their readership should extend beyond those who have had similar experiences to include the general population as well as those within the medical field.

If you want to contribute toward the language of medicine, the best way to approach your story is in small bites; trying to tell everything at once is too daunting and will prevent you from looking closely. Receiving a diagnosis can make you feel like you are no longer the same person. To remain in touch with the entire range of who you are, bring all your senses into your writing. Be aware not only of what is happening to you and inside of you, but what is going on around you. Read what you have written aloud to yourself. Writing gives us that tiny bit of distance that allows us to confront emotions, events, and fears that we might flinch from if we were speaking. Reading what you have written will help you recognize the feelings and discovery you have made.

You don’t need a special place to write or, particularly when you are starting out, a large amount of time. Here is a prompt you can do in ten or fifteen minutes.

NAMING AN ILLNESS

     My meditation teacher tells me that, whenever negative forces or thoughts arise, I should give them a name as a way of neutralizing them. It’s easier to talk to people than to feelings and talking can reduce the sting. Grief, for example, is an impenetrable block; Greta, though, is a woman with a soft voice, long hair shading her eyes, a slight limp; she is more comfortable in water than on land. I can lean into Greta to hear her speak, brush the hair from her eyes, take her hand and guide her to the rocking waters of the sea.

Anxiety is the character I meet most often. Her name is Sybil. She greets me with a stutter. I have known her for over forty years and she has changed. Her body is still made up of the same sharp angles. Her feet still pace as if they never need sleep, my heartbeat mirroring their uneven rhythm. She still takes me by the arm, whispers in my ear of things only her silver eyes can see. But it no longer takes as much strength for me to loosen her grip. Her hair, once black, spiky, and uncombed is now nearly white and contained by a headband. I used to Sibyl welcome; she loves a strong cup of Irish breakfast tea. These days I’m more inclined to stroke her long fingers, straightening and lengthening them before they can turn into claws.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, in The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, says, “To name an illness is to describe a certain condition of suffering—a literary act before it becomes a medical one.”  The true literary act, though, is in the renaming of the illness, to give it a moniker that is uniquely yours. It is a way to address your illness in familiar terms and to communicate with others in a form they can understand.

Writing Prompt

Write about your illness, or that of someone for whom you are caring, as if it were a person. Give it a name. What does it look like—height, hair and eye color, skin tone, clothes, hands?  Describe its mannerisms, habits, and moods. Give it a voice. Talk to it. How, if at all, has naming your illness influenced your relationship to it?

 

03252014_LWC_Judi_Hannan_0470_Final 4x4.jpgJudith Hannan is the author of Motherhood Exaggerated (CavanKerry Press, 2012), her memoir of discovery and transformation during her daughter’s cancer treatment and her transition into survival. Her essays have appeared in such publications as Woman’s DayOpera NewsThe Huffington PostThe Healing MuseZYZZYVATwins Magazine, and The Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. She teaches writing about personal experience to homeless mothers and at-risk adolescents as well as to medical students, and is a judge of the annual essay contest sponsored by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation for Humanism-in-Medicine. She served as Director of Development of the 92nd Street Y and then for the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. She now serves on the board of the Museum, Jody Oberfelder Dance Projects, as well as on three boards affiliated with the Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York—the Adolescent Health Center (where she now serves as President of the Advisory Board), the Children’s Center Foundation, and Global Health. She lives in New York.

 

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An open invitation for guest blog posts on illness narratives

When I first started this blog, I was excited to seize the domain illnessnarratives.com. Now several years later, however, I’ve realized that the focus of my writing here has evolved, and I’ve felt uncomfortable about how many of my posts have been about me and my writing rather than on illness narratives in general. This blog has been alive throughout a good chunk of my journey towards a career in medicine, from my undergraduate to my medical school education. It’s been challenging to find my direction, to balance sharing my own personal writing accomplishments and experiences with my thoughts on illness narratives that I encounter

To that end, I’d like to try something new. I’ve always felt it strange that I was the only voice in a blog that aspired to comprehensively survey the landscape of illness narratives.

This is an open invitation to anyone interested in writing a guest blog post. Here are some examples of what I’m hoping for, but I would welcome a post about anything that interests you related to illness narratives:

  • Review of an illness narrative, be it literature, film, music, or any other media
  • An illness narrative of your own
  • Thoughts about illness narratives as a genre
  • Ideas about the ethics of writing about illness
  • Any other interest you would like to explore!

Your blog post could be as short or as long as you like. It could be anywhere from a paragraph to a few pages; whatever works for you. All you have to do is email it to tkpaul@umich.edu, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. It’s that simple. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions at all; this will be a learning process for me.

I’m hoping that this might change things up a bit, and that I’ll be able to breathe some life back into this website. Because it’s summer, the world is anew, and it’s time.

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[Cancer Knowledge Network] Pediatric Palliative Care: A Multidisciplinary Approach

This article is also available at the Cancer Knowledge Network.

I have to admit—one of the first reasons that palliative care first piqued my interest was because I wanted to learn more about death. But as I’ve delved deeper into palliative care, I’ve come to realize just how much more comprehensive it is. While increasing access to hospice care is a component of what palliative care provides, palliative care does so much more for patients and families.

When I first started volunteering with patients at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, pediatric oncology jolted me to see how cancer can affect all humans, even kids. But the realization that terminally ill children face the unknown prospect of death every day was most jarring to me. Death was no longer an abstract fate for the elderly but rather a real concern for the babies I held, the kids I spent time with on Friday evenings.

As a teenager myself, it was especially hard to see other teens having to go through the experiences of being diagnosed and treated for a life-threatening disease like cancer. I became interested in how people of all ages, and especially children, understand and cope with death. I found that palliative care does not shy away from these end-of-life topics but rather starts many of these difficult conversations. Similarly, palliative care provides additional support by devoting attention to the pain that patients may be experiencing as well as the discomfort from symptoms and side effects.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that ideally, palliative care should begin (or at least be offered) when a child is first diagnosed with a life-threatening disease[1]. Pediatric palliative care aims to support young patients and their families throughout the entire experience of illness, from diagnosis to treatment, remission to relapse, and even end-of-life when applicable.

For kids undergoing treatment for cancer, imprisonment by IV pole and pain by poke may be what they know. Many have no choice but to curl into the humbling fetal position for spinal taps. These children hold on to the simple pleasures in their lives by putting a port on a teddy bear or playing with a Barbie doll that has no hair. Each child finds a different way to cope, and I have grown to admire these children. Pediatric Palliative Care, along with other health disciplines such as Child Life, provide additional support to help children cope with a cancer diagnosis and the difficult treatments that it entails.

We’ve come a long way in treating pediatric cancer over the past several decades, but it’s not enough to stop the uncontrollable growth of cancer cells without recognizing the psychological scars left behind by its presence. Cancer treatments can have life-long health consequences, and the support of pediatric palliative care involvement throughout the course of treatment has the potential to have a lasting impact on patients.

This, to me, is what pediatric palliative care is about. Pediatric palliative care is about ensuring that young patients have the best of quality of life that they can while experiencing life-threatening illness and its corresponding medical interventions. It is about devoting special attention to more than a child’s physical health but also their mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. As a multidisciplinary team generally composed of physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and chaplains, pediatric palliative care is able to support children as well as their siblings and parents more holistically.

Palliative care, especially in the pediatric world, encompasses end-of-life and much more. As the AAP states, “Reserving palliative care for children who have exhausted every curative treatment and are dying would mean that many other children would miss out on the benefits that palliative care can offer.” It has been encouraging to see how much pediatric palliative care has become established and valued over the past several years, and I look forward to getting involved in the field in the future.

 

[1] http://www2.aap.org/sections/palliative/whatispalliativecare.html

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Filed under Chronicling Childhood Cancer: Illuminating the Illness Experience through Narrative, Miscellaneous Musings

[Cancer Knowledge Network] Discovering a Passion for Pediatric Palliative Care

This article is also available at the Cancer Knowledge Network.

As someone who loves spending time with kids, I was thrilled when I was placed to volunteer on the 7th floor pediatric oncology inpatient playroom at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. Although I was just in high school, I had an early interest in becoming a pediatrician, and Mott seemed like the perfect place for me to learn more.

From talking to teens at their bedside to playing video games or doing arts and crafts with kids, I enjoyed every minute I spent with patients and their families. These activities meant so much more to me as I began to see how integral they were to sustaining children through cancer. These children endure levels of pain that seem unthinkable at such a young age, and I helped them find distractions in board games and plastic food.

With the backdrop of illness, these normal activities were never quite the same. One minute, I was racing trains with a 2 year old. The next, I was gripping his tiny arms and legs to help his nurse draw blood. He put his entire body into his scream, thrashing wildly. But as I held him afterwards, his peaceful demeanor made me realize that I made a difference.

As I spent time with siblings and parents, I witnessed the many ways that cancer permeates the lives of loved ones. As a volunteer, I supported them in any way that I could. I came to believe that talking with kids and families, letting them engage in conversation, to get their mind off things if they so choose or voice their concerns, unleashes the therapeutic nature of the spoken word. From the weather to a child’s prognosis, these conversations illuminated different perspectives of how cancer affects lives. My experiences with these young patients and their families largely contributed to my own desires to devote myself to medicine.

When I started medical school a little over a year ago, I would tell people that I was interested in becoming a pediatric oncologist. Even then, I knew that my interests may change throughout the course of my medical training, but I also knew that this is where my heart was and where it still is, at least for now. Within just a few months, I found myself slowly gravitating towards another discipline that also works closely with children with cancer: the field of palliative care.

Palliative Care aims to improve the quality of life for patients and families, often by alleviating symptom burden, providing pain management, helping with decision-making, and furthering communication about goals of care.[1] Palliative care aligns with many of the aspects of volunteering that were most rewarding for me, as well as my own philosophies about how I hope to practice medicine. From striving to alleviate pain and relieve the suffering that patients experience throughout the course of treatment to engaging in important and intimate conversations with patients and family members about experiences with illness, palliative care prioritizes aspects of medicine that most move me.

Often, these quality of life measures are goals of medicine in general, but to have an entire medical specialty devoted to these important issues has the potential to greatly impact patients, especially those in need. The baby who won’t stop crying from the pain, the teenager who may have wishes that deviate from those of caregivers, the parents who are deciding whether a clinical trial is right for their child—there is no question that cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery can present a series of uncertainties, challenging decisions, unimaginable pain, and life-long symptoms and side effects.

I hope that palliative care training will help me to develop my skills and make a difference in the quality of life experienced by children with cancer. By specializing in both pediatric hematology/oncology as well as in pediatric palliative care, I believe that I will be able to develop a more comprehensive knowledge base and gain experiences to ensure that both perspectives will always inform my care. Palliative care embodies the kind of care that I hope to be able to provide for my own patients and their families some day.

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[AMA JOE From the Editor] “Nothing About Us Without Us”: Toward Patient- and Family-Centered Care

This article, excerpted here, is available in its entirety at the AMA Journal of Ethics

Around dinnertime on the second Tuesday of every month, a group of people gather in the Family Center at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Some are former patients, some are staff, and most are parents of pediatric patients, some of whom are deceased. They have been invited to share their perspectives and to help improve administrative decision making and care delivery.

I was first introduced to the concept patient- and family-centered care (PFCC) by this patient- and family advisory council (PFAC), an advisory body that promotes the inclusion of patient and family member perspectives in making organizational and practice decisions. As a student member over the past year, I’ve observed the dedication of these council members to improving health care culture by promoting PFCC values.

PFCC is built upon four fundamental principles: treating patients and families with respect and dignity, sharing information, encouraging their participation in care and decision making, and fostering collaboration in care delivery and program design, implementation, and evaluation [1]. At its core, PFCC is about including patients and families in all aspects of health care.

As part of a broader movement towards participatory medicine that advocates for collaborative partnerships in health care [2], PFCC means developing partnerships with patients and their families; recognizing their expertise by involving them as members of clinical care teams, advisory committees, and regulatory research boards; and promoting inclusion of patients and their loved ones in bedside and systems-level health care dialogues. Physicians can learn from patients and their families, and it is our responsibility to do so.

I first became interested in better understanding patients’ perspectives as an English major exploring disability studies and narrative medicine; I sought to understand persons’ health care experiences through their narratives. PFCC models of thinking encouraged me to broaden my scope and to appreciate the interconnectedness of patients’ and family members’ experiences. Although PFCC originated in pediatrics, the importance of families extends to all medical practice [3].

As I learned more about the tenets of PFCC and the many forms that PFCC takes in practice, I began to wonder about when and how striving to deliver inclusive care can be ethically complex. How should medicine accommodate families alongside patients, and what ethical challenges arise when trying to do so? Accordingly, this theme issue of the AMA Journal of Ethics considers some of the ethical challenges of implementing PFCC. In an attempt to make this issue as “patient- and family-centered” as possible, I invited feedback from the Mott PFAC and included patients and family members as authors…

 

Read the rest of this article at the AMA Journal of Ethics.

 

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