About the Doctors

This podcast was originally published by BBC You Me & the Big C by April 26, 2018, here.

 

 

Former Arsenal and Celtic footballer John Hartson and Rachael’s surgeon Richard joins #YouMeBigC as we look at the relationships between cancer patients and their medical teams.

Why Getting a 2nd and 3rd Opinion Made a Difference In Her Cancer Treatment, With Sasha Denisova

This podcast was originally publish on WE Have Cancer by  on May 7, 2019 here.


Sasha Denisova – WE Have Cancer

Seeking out a 2nd and 3rd opinion in her cancer treatment resulted in a dramatic improvement in Sasha Denisova’s quality of life.

Sasha first appeared on this podcast in Episode 83 where she shared the struggle she faced getting doctors to take her colorectal cancer symptoms seriously.

During our latest conversation she discussed why she made the decision to forego treatment at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to seek treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City. We also discussed:

  • How she got the courage to challenge the initial treatment recommendations made by her doctor and why it’s important for everyone to advocate for their best care.
  • The importance 0f seeking out opinions from the top rated cancer facilities in the U.S.
  • How she eased herself back into working out in the gym and why working with a guided fitness instructor was important.
  • Why exercise is vital to her well-being and how most cancer patients can find an exercise routine that works for them.

Take Control Of Your Care When You’re Seriously Sick via NPR

This podcast was originally publish on NPR by John Henning Schumann, Mara Gordon, and Chloee Weiner on September 7, 2019 here.


Finding out you have a serious medical condition can leave you reeling. These strategies from medical and lay experts will help you be in control as you navigate our complex health care system and get the best possible care.

Here’s what to remember:

1. Your primary care doctor is the captain of your health care team.

With any serious diagnosis, there will usually be more specialists to see. Having a primary care doctor you trust helps coordinate the information flow and keep track of the big picture. Your primary is on her toes for possible medication interactions. Regular preventive measures shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

2. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.

If you’re offered treatment such as chemotherapy or surgery that can be life-altering, it’s crucial to get more than one opinion, ideally from a doctor working for a different institution. Oncologists and surgeons expect patients to seek second opinions — many provide them as a major part of their practice. If your doctor resents you seeking more opinions, that’s a red flag.

3. Get organized, stay organized, and find someone to help you if you can’t do it yourself.

Make a list of what you hope to accomplish at the doctor’s office. If for some reason you aren’t able to take notes, bring someone along who can act as an advocate and make sure your concerns aren’t overlooked. Ask for copies of your medical chart and test results so that you are part of the conversation — you have a legal right to see your records.

4. If you need a procedure, go to someone who does it all the time.

It’s true for medical care as it is in life: The more a doctor does a procedure, the better at it she’ll be. This means fewer complications and better outcomes. It’s OK to ask your doctor how many times she’s done a procedure; a high volume means competence when things go as planned, and calmness for unforeseen complications.

5. Use the Internet, but use it wisely.

Contrary to what you may think, your doctor wants you to be well-informed and engaged with your health. There’s more medical information available online than ever before, but a lot of it is garbage. Stick with trusted sources like the National Library of MedicinePubMed.gov, or learn about and use the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

6. Figure out what matters to you, and fight for it

Our default setting for health care is that more testing is always good. But that’s often not the case, as tests have side effects and can cause undue anxiety because of false positives or incidental findings. Have a frank conversation with your doctor about your values and what you want (and don’t want!) and you’ll be an empowered patient with a doctor as your advocate, not your adversary.

Learning How to Simplify Cancer With Joe Bakhmoutski

This podcast was originally publish on WE Have Cancer by Lee Silverstein on June 18, 2019 here.

Joe Bakhmoutski – WE Have Cancer

Joe Bakhmoutski was diagnosed with Testicular cancer in 2016.He founded Simplify Cancer  to provide support and advice to those touched by cancer. During our conversation we discussed:

  • Why he created Simplify Cancer
  • How he came to be diagnosed with Testicular cancer
  • How people perceive various cancers and how some are deemed “embarrassing”
  • What patients can do to prepare for their first oncologist appointment and the free tool he offers on his website to assist with this.
  • The book he’s writing to help men dealing with cancer.

Links Mentioned in the Show

Simplify Cancer – http://simplifycancer.com/

Understanding Your Cancer Prognosis from NCI

This video is part of NCI‘s Understand Your Cancer Prognosis video series published on YouTube on Feb 14, 2018.

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer it’s natural to wonder, “What are my chances of recovery? Can I be cured? What is the likely course of my disease?” If your cancer is advanced, you may ask, “How long do I have to live?” These are all questions about your cancer prognosis. Produced by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), “Understanding Your Cancer Prognosis” is the main video in the NCI Prognosis Video Series, which offers the perspectives of three cancer patients and their doctor, Anthony L. Back, M.D. — an oncologist who is also a national expert in doctor-patient communication. View the main video to learn key points about prognosis and how to talk about it, and to gain valuable insight from the personal ways each patient has approached questions about their future. To see the related videos and to find other helpful information about how to understand your cancer prognosis and cancer survival statistics, go to http://www.cancer.gov/prognosis.

Facing a Cancer Diagnosis: Advice From An Expert

Facing a Cancer Diagnosis: Advice From An Expert from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Brittany DeGreef, a genetic counselor, provides essential advice for when you are facing a cancer diagnosis emphasizing that leaning on supportive friends and family is key.

Brittany Degreef is a Genetic Counselor at Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. More about this expert.

See More From the The Pro-Active AML Patient Toolkit


Transcript:

One piece of advice I give patients who are just diagnosed with cancer – and we do frequently see patients at least once a week who were just diagnosed either that week or the week prior – is feel what you need to feel. Not every patient is going to react or cope with their diagnosis in the same way as someone next to them, even within the same family. That also goes for caregivers and relatives.  

 So, just because you feel like helping out a relative in a specific way, it might not be the same for your brother or sister or cousin.  

 So, we always tell patients that there is no wrong or right way to cope with a diagnosis of cancer. The way that you approach it is perfectly fine and there’s no right or wrong way to do that.  

So, another piece of advice we always tell patients is don’t be scared to lean on your support network, whether that be family or friends, your healthcare provider, advocacy groups, never be afraid to ask for help.   

And for some patients who feel like they have limited resources, usually hospitals where you’re receiving your patient care has many resources available to you, whether that be emotional, financial, spiritual, logistical. Don’t be scared to ask about those resources. 

Barby Ingle – What Advice Do You Have For Someone Who Is Newly Diagnosed?

As the president of the International Pain Foundation, a best-selling author, and chronic pain advocate, Barby Ingle shares her advice for the newly diagnosed. For all our A Conversation With… videos please click here.

Barby Ingle – What Advice Do You Have For Someone Who Is Newly Diagnosed? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Introducing PatientTrueTalk.com – A New Way to Help the Newly Diagnosed

I’d like you to imagine or remember that moment you are told you have cancer and the doctor informs you of your treatment options, whether surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, clinical trial or some combination thereof. Time is of the essence and you need to make a decision soon. Aside from the people in the room with you (your doctor, nurse and spouse/partner/caregiver/friend), where can you turn for objective advice?

When I was first diagnosed with stage three melanoma in 1999, there were few, if any, options. Whether they were helpful was another story. Some recommended I find a support group specifically for melanoma. What chance was there that I could find a support group nearby with an imminent meeting where there was someone in attendance who could relate to my specific situation? I didn’t think it likely and never sought one out.

Today, there are various online communities that offer support. Like a live support group, you still need to hope that there is someone with relevant experience monitoring and reviewing your online community in the time frame you need. You may then need to wade through a multitude of responses to your post and hope there is helpful advice in their somewhere. I do believe these resources are extremely valuable. If you’re like me, however, you want to find someone who has experienced exactly what you are about to experience, then reach out for a private conversation.

My name is Dan Engel and I recently founded PatientTrueTalk.com to solve this pressing issue. I am a stage four metastatic melanoma survivor who collectively has endured ten operations, gamma knife surgery on a brain metastasis, radiation treatment, six clinical trials and seven years of a maintenance clinical trial. I’d like to think that my medical record, and the fact that I’ve read and signed well over ten informed consent forms (one for each trial and each amendment), gives me some credibility as an expert on the cancer patient experience, with a particular focus on clinical trials.

When I was diagnosed and faced my first clinical trial, I desperately wanted to speak to someone who went before me. Among other things, I wanted to know about side effects, life during treatment, state of mind, pain, etc., or basically everything I read about in the informed consent form. I wanted to know what to really expect from a patient’s perspective, not that of a nurse or doctor. I understood that my experience by definition would be different, but relished that opportunity to speak with a fellow patient. During the countless time I’ve spent in infusion rooms, I made sure to speak with anyone else who might need a friendly ear.

Recently launched, PatientTrueTalk.com is the only patient-to-patient registry where patients and/or their caregivers can create profiles with as much information as they feel comfortable sharing, and find matching profiles based on algorithms created by some of the country’s top clinical oncologists. Patients/caregivers can also search along their diagnosis/treatment parameters, refining their search based on the results provided. They can then send secure messages directly to those who they believe represent the closest match. Once a connection is made, the two parties can speak off-line and hopefully form a friendship. My profile is the first “patient advocate” included on the site.

I believe that there are thousands and thousands of survivors like myself who provide informal advocacy on an ad-hoc basis all the time, and that would love to be part of a more organized effort to help fellow patients and their families. The only thing missing is the technology platform to aggregate those survivors. PatientTrueTalk.com fills that void. To be effective, however, the site needs thousands of survivors who have battled every type of cancer to register as “patient advocates” to be available for the newly diagnosed and/or their caregivers.

My call to action is this: if you are or know a survivor, please register or encourage others to register on the site.

If you’d like to learn more about my trials and tribulations (pun intended), check out my book at www.thrivingthrucancer.com.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Patient Advocates

“Without doubt, you have to leave the comfort zone of base camp and confront an entirely new and unknown wilderness.” -Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was first published in 1989 as a business and self-help book. Covey presents an approach to being effective in attaining goals by aligning ourselves to what he calls “true north” principles. I was inspired reading this article by Melissa McAllister, to go back and read the principles behind the book to see how we might apply them to our advocacy work.

HABIT 1: Be Proactive

The first habit that Covey discusses is being proactive. I cannot think of a more apt description of patient advocacy – in order to be effective, we must be relentlessly proactive. Carolyn Thomas, a heart attack survivor, and author of A Woman’s Guide To Living With Heart Disease, tells the story of how her cardiac symptoms were dismissed when she was first admitted to the ER. She wonders had it been her daughter or sister experiencing the same symptoms, what would she have done? The answer: “screaming blue murder to get the help this other person deserved, with no thought whatsoever of being labelled as “difficult”. We need to be as strong and as diligent about getting help for our own medical needs as we’d be if we were trying to get help for our loved ones.”

HABIT 2: Begin with the End in Mind

Habit 2 suggests that, in everything we do, we should begin with the end in mind. We should envision the end result clearly and work with purpose toward achieving our vision of optimum care for ourselves and others.  One of the best ways to incorporate Habit 2 into your life, according to Covey, is to develop a Personal Mission Statement. Consider creating a Mission Statement to put your advocacy goals in focus and make your vision a reality.

HABIT 3: Put First Things First

In order to be effective, we must learn to prioritize our day-to-day actions based on what is most important, not what is most urgent. This means learning how to say no in order to focus on our priorities. As Covey puts it, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”  Dee Sparacio, author, blogger and ovarian cancer advocate, recently wrote on her blog about taking a step back from her heavy work-load of advocacy activities to focus on her priorities. She outlined a list of questions to help her decide which activities to prioritize:

  • How effective am I at doing that work?
  • Am I the only one doing that work?
  • If I am the only one can another advocate/person do it?
  • How much does the work benefit other survivors/patients?
  • How many people are effected by the work I do?
  • Do I ever regret having agreed to do the work and feel that way when I am doing it?
  • Does the work ever prevent me from doing other things – like hang out with my husband, grand-kids or dog?
  • Does that work bring me joy?

These questions can be helpful for us to look at our own activities and decide which advocacy roles we want to put on the top of our priority list.

HABIT 4: Think Win-Win

In our advocacy work, we will inevitably find ourselves in a situation where our wants and needs conflict with another’s. In order to practice this habit, we must commit to creating Win-Win situations that are mutually beneficial to each party. While recognizing this might not always be possible, this habit reminds us that we must at least try to understand the other person’s point of view and work if possible towards a mutually satisfying outcome.

HABIT 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

Communication is one of the most important skills we can develop. While many advocates can speak well, how many of us are good listeners? Listening and hearing are not the same things. Most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand. Poor listeners are unable to separate their own needs and interests from those of others. They are more likely to interrupt and to jump to conclusions about what the other person is saying. Active listening requires critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence.  Developing the ability to listen deeply allows us to respond with an open minded empathy to another’s situation. We are less inclined then to interpret the other person’s words solely from our own perspective and frame of reference.

HABIT 6: Synergize

Synergize is the habit of creative cooperation. Covey describes this habit as one in which the whole is great than the sum of its parts: “It’s a process, and through that process, people bring all their personal experience and expertise to the table. Together, they can produce far better results that they could individually.”  From our own advocacy work, we know this to be true. We are stronger together. When we bring our collective voices, skills, and experience together, we achieve more. Covey points out that valuing differences is what really drives synergy: “When people begin to interact together genuinely, and they’re open to each other’s influence, they begin to gain new insight. The capability of inventing new approaches is increased exponentially because of differences.”

HABIT 7: Sharpen the Saw

Habit 7 is focused around taking time to renew our resources and health to create a sustainable long-term environment for our advocacy work. “Sharpen the Saw”, writes Covey, “means preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have—you.”  In our desire to effect change quickly we can easily burn-out. Renewing ourselves physically, spiritually, emotionally and mentally will help us practice each of these seven habits more effectively. 

Some Final Thoughts on Being an Effective Patient Advocate

 I asked some of my favorite patient advocates to share their thoughts on what makes an effective advocate. Here’s what they told me.

“Passion, persistence, patience. Self-leadership, clear vision, courage (at least sometimes!) ‘We’ attitude, optimism, hope, trust, belief in basic goodness. Ability to listen, collaborate, cajole, criticise (constructively), take criticism.” – Anne Lawlor, Founder, 22Q11 Ireland

“Knowing when you need to talk about your personal view or experience and when you need to garner input from other patients. Nobody’s voice speaks for everyone.” – Alison Fielding, Chair Cardiomyopathy UK

“Passion, tenacity and balance. If you don’t have a passion for what you do, you tend not to give your all. Tenacity for it is inevitable that someone will tell you no or close the door in your face. When that happens you must remember your passion. Balance because you need a life.” – Anne Marie, lung cancer patient and blogger at These Are My Scars

“Perseverance, stand your ground, listen, don’t be afraid (to ask questions or admit you don’t know something) – remind others you want the same.  Understand your goals, what are you trying to achieve and why.” – Julia, co-founder #BCCWW

“Passion, commitment, belief in what you are doing, being a voice for not just you but many, speaking out, assertive, having your opinion doesn’t matter if it’s unique, a great communicator and networker, good listener, resilience and determination.”  – Jo Taylor, Founder, After Breast Cancer Diagnosis

As you can see so many of these responses echo the 7 habits above.  Patient advocacy requires self-belief and a clear vision for what you want to achieve. Above all, it requires dedication, persistence and commitment. I am so proud to be able to work among such passionate patient advocates. The work is hard and often goes unnoticed, but your reach and impact is immeasurable.

Negotiating Cancer: Tips From One Who’s Done It

Editor’s Note: This blog was written by Stefanie Joho, an advocate, speaker, and colon cancer survivor, for The Washington Post. You can see the original blog here.


At the age of 24, after two surgeries and two aggressive rounds of chemotherapy failed to cure me, my oncologist sent me home to die. When I was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 2013, I’d never even heard the word immunotherapy. I didn’t know that my doctors wouldn’t have all the answers. I thought clinical trials were last-ditch efforts rather than treatments that save countless lives. I didn’t know that a treatment geared to fighting my specific type of cancer and the genetic components of my tumor would go on to potentially offer tens of thousands of patients a revolutionary new path to surviving cancer in 2017.

Because I’m one of the very few lucky ones who looked into the abyss and made it out on the other side, I feel it is my duty to speak up and share some of the critical things that I have learned in what is now a new era in cancer care. Because a disease that should have killed me instead launched my career in patient advocacy.

[‘This is not the end’: Experimental therapy that targets genes gives cancer patients hope]

First and foremost, it is important to remember that every cancer is unique. Your journey will be different from mine. Your cancer is yours and yours alone. So think of the following points as “road signs.” They’re ones that I wish someone had shown me when I felt lost, with nowhere else to turn. The goal of this guide is to potentially help shape your thinking as you become an active participant in saving your life. More than anything, I hope it prompts you to question the presumption of cancer care for nearly a century.

1. The more we know, the more we can fight for our lives. 

We look to doctors in their white coats to be the experts — partly because, in a moment of such despair, we want to be able to look to someone to just give us the answers. But you should know that you will not find that person in anyone but yourself.

In the beginning of my cancer journey, I felt intimidated by my doctors and made several decisions that I now regret. I walked into appointments and agreed to everything instantaneously, without even considering a second opinion. As my cancer kept coming back and the treatments kept failing, I decided that the only chance I had to make it out alive would be to become an active participant on my journey. I would have to educate myself. I scoured the Internet. I became an “expert” not only in my specific disease, but also in the current cancer landscape.

I’m in no way encouraging you to become your own doctor and understand all the science. And I’m certainly not encouraging you to take everything you read on the Internet as fact. But in 2017, with the amount of accessibility to information, I’m encouraging you to seek it out. Never take anything at face value or trust blindly. Make informed decisions, not decisions based on fear. Walk into appointments with your doctors as an equal, not as a passive bystander. Being an informed cancer patient today is a full-time job. As with any job, that means learning new skill sets and finding the resources needed to succeed.

2. Asking questions is not making trouble. 

You will often be made to feel that being a “good patient” means not asking questions. But do not be afraid to speak up. Your life quite literally depends on it. Come into every appointment with a prepared list. If possible, bring someone with you who can take notes. If you are confused about something, ask. If you think of it later, write it down. Remember: You’re the one whose needs are paramount. You’re the one who is fighting for your life. Make every thought, concern and feeling heard. If it isn’t received the first time, say it as many times as necessary.

If you begin to develop a symptom from a treatment side effect or from the cancer itself, understand that it is the system’s job to help you get relief. If your doctors aren’t taking you seriously, do not believe their judgment over yours. And if you feel that your physician doesn’t understand or listen to you, then perhaps it’s time to seek one out who will. In my opinion, an individual who does not have empathy is not a physician.

3. No two cancers are the same. Become an expert in YOUR cancer. 

No two cancers are the same. Increasingly, knowledge of such individual variation is being shown to lead to more effective treatments. Ask your physicians and understand every type of genetic testing available to you. The more granular you can get about the specifics of your disease, the more you will maximize your chances of identifying the best possible treatment for your “personal” tumor. (Discovering the genetic biomarker of my cancer saved my life.) Continue to expand your resources so that you can be an expert in your own cancer.

4. Take note of EVERY potential side effect. Report everything. 

The incredible advances in cancer treatments have created a new set of challenges for clinicians, especially in how to identify the side effects. Given that these are new treatments, your doctors are not as practiced with them as they are with chemotherapy and radiation.

For example, immunotherapy is entirely different from traditional treatment. The former utilizes the patient’s own immune system, whereas the latter aims to attack only the cancer cells. Early recognition and proper management of side effects can make the difference between life and death.

Don’t hold back a single concern from your doctor and care team. Even if you think it sounds minuscule or irrelevant, your oncologist needs to know everything to best care for you. Listen to your body. Observe and report any changes.

5. Clinical trials are not a last-resort option.

The lines of treatment are rapidly changing, and, more often than not, getting access to cutting-edge treatments entails enrolling in a clinical trial. There’s an unfortunate misconception that clinical trials are reserved for those who have exhausted all other options. In reality, trials can actually offer access to the most individualized cancer treatment. And in fact, immunotherapy is more and more becoming the first line of treatment — and even being used before surgery to prevent relapses.

And just as individual patients can’t tackle their disease by themselves, we all ultimately must help one another by sharing and participating in clinical trials. Only 4 percent of cancer patients are currently enrolled in studies. Explore trials at cancer centers with a lot of experience in the type of therapy being tested. See if you have options outside of what has been standard of care for 70-plus years.

In the doctor-patient relationship, patients must understand that they are partners of science and as big a part of the cure as doctors. Without us, and our willingness to participate, medical advances would not exist. I will always feel a tremendous sense of pride for participating in a study that will save many thousands of people’s lives.

6. Cancer is not just a physical disease. 

It is critical throughout your journey to address the mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of this disease. Seek help, support and healing from other places, too. There are many schools of thought about why people become ill and what can be done to help them recover. It’s important to maintain your anchor in generally accepted medical principles, but don’t be afraid to look further up- and downstream to see if other currents of healing can add value for you and your care team.

As only one example among many, learning about nutrition made me feel as though I were actively fighting and doing something every single day to help my body heal.

7. Hope is a lifeline.

Don’t let anyone ever take that away from you. I believe in hope. Period. It saves lives. When your mind tells you that it’s over, the body has no reason to keep fighting. If you find yourself drifting in that direction, remember: “You haven’t failed the treatments; the treatments have failed you.”

Of course, doctors must tell their patients the difficult truth. But the specific words used to deliver such news matter. If your doctor is unable to provide you with hope or encouragement to keep fighting, find the hope and strength from within yourself and the loved ones around you.

8. None of this can be done alone. 

This might sound overwhelming. But with great power comes great responsibility. You are powerful, but you are not superhuman. Know your limits, and respect those limits.

Cancer is not a journey that you can navigate alone. The people and professionals with whom you surround yourself will alter the course of your journey. They will lend you strength when you feel you simply have nothing left to give.

If you physically or emotionally cannot actively advocate for yourself, then ask someone to be your advocate. When things were particularly bleak, my younger sister, Jess, often had to speak up for me. She knew what my doubts were, what my concerns were and what was important to me. She became my voice when I didn’t have one.

Create a health-care team that listens to you and cares about you and includes you in every aspect of your decision-making process.

Lastly, and so very importantly: Connect with others in the community. As much as your loved ones will do everything in their power to be there for you, they simply will not be able to understand the complexities of what you are grappling with on a daily basis. Making friends with other cancer patients (even through social media) enabled me to share the fears and anxieties that I was too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about with those who weren’t confronting their own mortality. I could speak openly about my side effects, the changes taking place in my body, my isolation. I could utter the words, “I’m ready to give up,” without the looming guilt associated with saying that to loved ones.

It certainly doesn’t have to be about only cancer, all of the time, but knowing that this kind of support exists is healing. It makes you feel understood.

Patient Advocacy: Understanding Your Illness

The news that you, or a loved one, has a serious illness can be a terrible blow.  You may be faced with an array of emotions ranging from shock to fear to anxiety. You will likely have many questions and concerns about what the coming days and months will bring, and the impact living with this illness will have on your life and the lives of your family. Although you may be reeling from the news, it’s important that you learn as much as you can about your diagnosis, its symptoms, how it may progress and what treatment options are available. In this article, you will learn which questions you should ask your healthcare team and where to find reliable and trustworthy information to become better informed about your health condition.

1. Obtaining Information From Your Doctors And Healthcare Team

Having answers to your questions can help you understand your illness better and feel more in control about your treatment decisions.  How much information you want is up to you. Some patients feel overwhelmed by too much information at this stage.  Others say they didn’t receive enough information.  While information upon first diagnosis is vitally important, you may be in shock and in a heightened emotional state which makes it difficult to fully comprehend all the information you are given. If possible, bring a trusted friend or family member to appointments with you to take notes. If this is not possible, ask your doctor if you can record the consultation so you can focus on listening, and go back and review what was said later.

Medical care is a conversation and to have influence in that conversation you have to speak up. Never be embarrassed to tell your healthcare team if you don’t understand something they’ve said. Sometimes doctors use medical jargon without realizing they are not explaining things in terms we understand. Repeat what the doctor has told you to be sure you understand and ask for clarification if needed.

Some questions to ask your doctor about your diagnosis:

  • What are the symptoms of this illness?
  • What should you do if you notice new symptoms or if existing symptoms worsen?
  • Do you need any further diagnostic tests?
  • What are your treatment options?
  • What are the side-effects of the recommended treatment?
  • What are the benefits vs the risks?
  • What happens if you do nothing?
  • Are there other treatment options available?

Finally, ask your healthcare team if they can recommend further reading, support groups and other resources to help you learn more about your illness.

2. Finding Reliable Information Online

As you move along the patient journey and better understand your illness, you may want higher levels of information. However, you may find the information healthcare professionals provide has not keep pace with your increased needs. This is the point where many patients turn online to seek more information. While the Internet can be a useful source of health information, it’s important to know how to critically evaluate the information you find online. Always discuss what you find with your healthcare team and ask them to put the information into context for your particular situation.

Here are some questions to help you determine the trustworthiness of online sources of information.

  • Who has produced the information?
  • Does the organization have commercial interests or another reason they are promoting this information?
  • Is the name of the organization and their aims in setting up the website clearly shown?
  • Does the site provide contact details if you have any questions?
  • Is the information on the website up to date?
  • Does it cite the source of the information that is being presented?
  • Does the site link with other reputable sites that give similar information?

3. Evaluating Medical News Reports

Whether it’s published in hard copy or online, medical news reports can mislead people into thinking a certain drug or treatment is the next breakthrough in a disease.  As patient advocates we must learn to read beyond the headlines to filter out the good, the bad, and the questionable.

The following questions will help you evaluate the reliability of medical news reporting.

  • Does the article support its claims with scientific research?
  • What is the original source of the article?
  • Who paid for and conducted the study?
  • How many people did the research study include?
  • Did the study include a control group?
  • What are the study’s limitations?
  • If it’s a clinical trial that is being reported on, what stage is the trial at?

Always try to read an original study (if cited) to critically evaluate the information presented. Understanding research literature is an important skill for patient advocates. For tips on how to read a research paper click on this link.

4. Learning From Peers

From helping us to uncover a diagnosis and finding the right doctors and treatments, to learning about everyday coping tips, turning to our peers can make all the difference in how we live with our illnesses.  Much of this peer-to-peer learning takes place through social media discussions on patient blogs and in Facebook groups and Twitter chats. On Facebook you can connect with other patient advocates and join Facebook groups related to your disease or health condition. On Twitter you have a greater mix of patients, physicians, healthcare professionals and medical researchers coming together to discuss healthcare matters. It is becoming increasingly popular for attendees at key medical conferences, such as ASCO, to “live-tweet” sessions. You can follow along on Twitter using the conference hashtag which you should find published on the conference website. Another way to learn on Twitter is to join a Twitter chat related to your health condition. Twitter chats can be one-off events, but more usually are recurring weekly chats to regularly connect people. There are chats for most disease topics and a full list can be found by searching the database of the Healthcare Hashtag Project.

Final Thoughts

Understanding your illness is the first step on the path to advocating for yourself and others.

Being an advocate involves asking lots of questions, conducting your own research, and making your preferences known to your healthcare team. By doing this, you will be better informed and in a stronger position to get the treatment that is right for you. If this feels overwhelming to you right now, go at your own pace, and reach out to others who have walked this path before you. There is an army of patients who are standing by, ready to share their healthcare wisdom and practical coping tips with you. Seeking their advice will help lessen the fear and isolation you may be feeling, give you a sense of shared experience and connection, and help you feel more in charge of your healthcare decisions.

Fact Checking 101: Health Literacy in Real Time

There’s a medical miracle every day, if you believe headlines on popular media sites. If you just read those headlines, cancer is cured daily, as are hepatitis C, and a host of neurological conditions. Dive into the stories, though, and you’ll all too often find the “in mice” red flag, meaning that scientific experiments have indicated that mice are having terrific outcomes from whatever substance is being touted. Humans? Not so much.

Information flows at the speed of life – thank you, Internet – but information does not always equal factual truth. Which is where fact checking comes in, and what I’ll be offering tips on here. As a journalist, I’ve hunted down confirmations on stories for years – here’s a quick primer on doing it for your own health/science literacy building.

  • Snopes.com: this site is the granddaddy of online myth busting. They have a dedicated channel for health news, which is definitely a good first stop to fact check a headline touting a “cure” for an illness or condition.
  • Sense About Science USA: the US arm of the UK-based Sense About Science and AllTrials, this site takes a deep dive into advocacy and literacy building for both the public, and professionals, around medical science. They’re in the process of creating an AllAccess Patient Guide on clinical trial participation, and transparency in reporting on all trials, which will be published in the fall of this year (2017).
  • Health News Review: the editors and reviewers behind this site are professional healthcare journalists dedicated to reading and scoring the reporting on health science in major media. I think of them as Politifact For Healthcare – they don’t issue “pants on fire” or “Pinocchio” warnings, but their 5-star review system is rigorous, and great reading.
  • FactCheck.org and FlackCheck.org: these sites assess news stories and sources in many categories, from politics to science to health policy. They’re produced by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and are great resources for fact checking in all news categories, not just science.
  • Retraction Watch: this is in the Super Science Nerd Journalist zone, covering the retraction of scientific papers around the world. There’s an old news adage about corrections being buried deep beneath the front page – that rule goes double in science publishing. A paper is published, and makes big headlines. If it’s retracted weeks/months/years later, there’s seldom a screaming headline announcing the retraction, leaving the untruth out there to be misunderstood and often misused.

Building your own health and science literacy is a process. Reading the latest medical science news is a starting point, but you have to add fact checking as a critical part of your learning curve. Then use the “see one, do one, teach one” method to help your friends and family build their health literacy, teaching them how to find and fact check the science news that matters – that’s how we all build healthy, science-literate communities.

How to Weigh Up the Benefits and Risks of Treatment…and Why It’s Important That You Do

Do clinicians have accurate expectations of the benefits and harms of treatments and screening tests?

new study in JAMA Internal Medicine concludes not. In a systematic review of 48 studies (13 011 clinicians), the researchers found that clinicians rarely had accurate expectations of benefits or harms, more often underestimating harms and overestimated benefits. Among the findings, obstetricians and neurologists underestimated the risk of birth defects from anti-epileptic drugs and GPs overestimated the benefit of prostate cancer screening. Transplant surgeons were biased towards an inaccurately low estimate of graft failure and all types of doctors were unaware of the risk of radiation exposure from imaging.

What do these findings mean for patients? Inaccurate clinician expectations of the benefits and harms of interventions can profoundly influence decision making and the standard of care patients receive. Patient activist, blogger, and author of the upcoming book “Heart Sisters: A Survivor’s Take on Women and Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017), Carolyn Thomas, believes this to be “a consistently systemic issue for patients, too: most believe medical interventions will help more/harm less than they actually do”. It’s a wake-up call for patients who have a critical role to play in understanding and weighing up benefits and risks for ourselves, in order to get better treatment. And it’s a further reminder of the importance of shared decision making to reach a healthcare choice together, as opposed to clinicians making decisions on behalf of patients.

However, understanding the risks associated with a treatment is not necessarily straight-forward. The challenge for busy clinicians is that there isn’t always the time to read and digest the latest research to inform their practice. Medical commentator, physician, and cancer survivor, Elaine Schattner, believes that because medical knowledge changes so rapidly it’s hard for clinicians to keep pace. “This may be especially true in oncology,” she points out, “as patients become expert in their own conditions and needs, they may prefer to look up information on their own, and share their findings with their physicians.”

A lengthy article published this month in ProPublica, examines what it calls “an epidemic of unnecessary and unhelpful treatment” requested by patients and delivered by doctors, even after current research contradicts its practice. “It is distressingly ordinary for patients to get treatments that research has shown are ineffective or even dangerous”, writes David Epstein. “Some procedures are implemented based on studies that did not prove whether they really worked in the first place. Others were initially supported by evidence but then were contradicted by better evidence, and yet these procedures have remained the standards of care for years, or decades.” Epstein points to a 2013 study which examined all 363 articles published in The New England Journal of Medicine over a decade — 2001 through 2010 — that tested a current clinical practice. Their results, published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found 146 studies that proved or strongly suggested that a current standard practice either had no benefit at all or was inferior to the practice it replaced. Of course, this is not to say that myriad treatments don’t indeed improve and save lives, but it’s important to ask questions and do your own research before making a decision on which treatment is the best for you.

Start by asking your doctor to explain all the treatment options open to you, including what would happen if you do nothing. Recognise that all treatments are inevitably associated with some risk of possible harm. Ask your doctor to quantify that risk beyond a purely descriptive term, such as “low risk” (what your doctor considers a small and acceptable risk may be unacceptable to you). Next, do your own research. In order to make an informed decision, you will need to gather reliable information on which to base your choice. Fully exploring the risks and benefits of treatment involves doing your own evidence-based research (using evidence from medical studies that have looked at what happens to many thousands of people with your condition). In a previous article, I shared with you some helpful guidelines for assessing medical information. Most media reports about the benefits of treatments present risk results as relative risk reductions rather than absolute risk reductions, so you will need to understand the difference. Absolute risk of a disease is your risk of developing the disease over a time period. We all have absolute risks of developing various diseases such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, etc. Relative risk is used to compare the risk in two different groups of people. For example, research has shown that smokers have a higher risk of developing heart disease compared to non-smokers. Ask your doctor to differentiate between absolute and relative risk. Check out the NNT website which provides non-biased summaries of evidence-based medicine. “NNT” stands for a statistical concept called the “Number-Needed-to-Treat” – as in “How many patients need to be treated with a drug or procedure for one patient to get the hoped-for benefit?” The core value of the NNT is its straightforward communication of the science that can help us understand the likelihood that a patient will be helped, harmed, or unaffected by a treatment. It provides a measurement of the impact of a medicine or therapy by estimating the number of patients that need to be treated in order to have an impact on one person. Because we know that not everyone is helped by a medicine or intervention — some benefit, some are harmed, and some are unaffected, the NNT tells us how many of each.

You may also want to hear about what other people with your condition have chosen to do and what their experience has been. But remember that just because something has/hasn’t worked for someone else, it doesn’t mean it will/won’t work for you. Orthopedic surgeon, Dr Nicholas DiNubile, recommends patients ask their doctors, “If this were you, or one of your immediate family members, what would you do and/or recommend?” While this may be useful, you must ultimately decide what benefits and risks are important to you. Can you tolerate the side-effects? Are you happy with the way the treatment is administered? Would you find it stressful to live with the risk of any serious side effects, even if the risk is small? What matters is whether you think that the benefits outweigh the risk of any side effects. Everyone is different. The treatment recommended for you may not be the best treatment for your particular lifestyle. Being an advocate for your own health care involves asking lots of questions, doing your own research, and making your preferences known to your doctor. By doing this, you will be better informed and in a stronger position to get the treatment that is right for you.


Related Reading
Clinicians’ Expectations of Treatments, Screening, and Test Benefit and Harm
The three questions that every patient should ask their doctor
Strategies to help patients understand risks

ePatient Virtual Courses

The ePatient virtual classrooms are designed to empower patients in all their healthcare matters.

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ePatient101: How to be an Empowered Patient, is an online course for anyone interested in becoming an empowered patient, empowered caregiver, or patient advocate. Through this online course taught by Alex Barfuss, you will learn:

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