About four years ago, I started reading blogs. One of those, Respectful Insolence, was written by a surgical oncologist who writes under the name, Orac. This was before he was asked to be at ScienceBlogs and about a year before Terra Sig was. He has since become my friend and colleague.
Orac is one of the most consistently excellent medical bloggers in the sci/med blogosphere. But today’s post resonated exceptionally with me. In discussing the ongoing case of Daniel Hauser, a young man with Hodgkin’s lymphoma whose parents are fighting to withhold his chemotherapy, Orac writes a concise, moving, and revealing post on the unvarnished truth about cancer chemotherapy and what it is like to die of cancer gone untreated. A “healthy death” it is not.
I added a version of the following comment with my perspective on his essay:
I had to read this post and must say that this is one of your best I have seen, perhaps colored by my professional relationship to this field.
Beyond docs not wanting to “torture” patients with cytotoxic drugs, I think that the general public does not adequately appreciate just how similar cancer cells are to normal, untransformed cells. With antibiotics, it is quite easy to selectively kill bacteria without damaging normal tissue, in most cases. This is because bacterial drug targets are very different structurally from analogous proteins in human cells or, say in the case of penicillins and cephalosporins, target a process that is completely absent from human cells.
In cancer, the best we can do right now is to target those processes that are most different between cancer cells and normal cells. In the majority of cases, this is not possible because some normal cells depend on the very same processes for growth as do cancer cells, such as blood-forming elements of the bone marrow.
Those of us in the field of anticancer drug discovery are doing our absolute best to try and identify targets that are most different between normal and cancer cells. All of us have that goal for the very reasons you describe.
What is not appreciated by many who wish to “die healthy” is that over 12 million cancer survivors are alive today in the US because of surgical oncologists like you, as well as medical oncologists who direct cancer chemotherapy regimens, and radiation oncologists. Yes, the treatments are not easy to endure but depending on the type of cancer, the benefits far outweigh the risks and adverse reactions.
I wish the public knew just how hard we are all working together to relieve human suffering from cancer.
Go forth and read Orac’s “Chemotherapy vs. death from cancer.”