LC Newly Diagnosed Archives

Your lung cancer diagnosis is just a starting point. Even though the path ahead may seem unclear or even insurmountable, armed with knowledge you can take control.

Let us help you become empowered to understand your diagnosis, to confidently ask questions, and to identify providers that are the best fit for you.

More resources for Lung Cancer Diagnosis from Patient Empowerment Network.

Encore: Facing a Lung Cancer Diagnosis

This podcast was originally published by Cancer Support Community on November 17, 2015, here.

“Being empowered is choosing to adopt actions, behaviors, and attitudes that can help you regain a sense of control over your treatment and life with cancer,” excerpt from Frankly Speaking About Cancer: Lung Cancer. Part of being empowered means learning all you can about your specific type of cancer—what it is, how it affects your body, how it’s treated and what you can expect during diagnosis, treatment and beyond.

 

Frankly Speaking About Cancer: Join host Kim Thiboldeaux, President and CEO of the Cancer Support Community, for a weekly radio broadcast empowering listeners to live well with cancer. Every Tuesday, 4PM ET (1PM PT)

Support For Those With Lung Cancer

This resource was originally published by Cancer Care.org here.

Get Support

Counseling

Oncology social workers help you cope with the emotional and practical challenges of lung cancer. Contact us at 800‑813‑HOPE (4673) or info@cancercare.org.
Learn more about counseling.

CancerCare has partnered with LUNGevity, the nation’s leading lung cancer-focused nonprofit organization to provide the LUNGevity Lung Cancer Helpline: 844-360-LUNG (5864).

Financial Assistance

Find resources and support to manage your financial concerns. Limited assistance from CancerCare® is available to eligible families for cancer-related costs.

Support Groups

Connect with others in our free support groups led by oncology social workers.

Online

Face-to-Face

Community Programs

If you live in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, learn about and view the full calendar of our free community programs.

Find Information

Ask CancerCare

Every month, featured experts answer your questions about coping with cancer. View all questions and answers.

LUNG CANCER
  • Q.

    My 68-year-old husband was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2004, had radiation and chemo, and is currently in remission. Since ending his treatment, his personality has changed drastically and he directs his anger towards me. Can chemo affect a person mentally?

    More…

  • Q.

    My husband has just been diagnosed with small cell lung cancer with small tumors in his liver. He starts chemo next week with 4 hours, day 1 and 2 hours, day 2 and 3. He repeats this every 18 days for six sessions. Is this the normal treatment for small cell lung cancer? Where would I look to find information on clinical trials?

    More…

  • Q.

    How can I breathe with a lung after the pneumonectomy? Is there anything I should be doing?

    More…

  • Q.

    My sister has stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer as well as tumors in her liver. Are there two different chemotherapy treatments for both the lung and the liver or are they treated with the same drugs?

    More…

  • Q.

    My best friend’s husband has just started chemo for lung cancer but refuses to quit smoking. This is driving a huge wedge between the two of them. Does smoking impact the effectiveness of the chemo?

    More…

View All (10 more)

Stories of Help and Hope

Read inspiring personal accounts from people affected by cancer and the ways they’ve found to cope.

Know What Your Doctors Know: Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer

This video was originally published by National Comprehensive Cancer Network on December 17, 2018, here.

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/

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. Download the Office Visit Planner and bring it to your next appointment here.

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

Related Resources

 Find Your Voice Resource Guide  Key Genetic Testing After an AML Diagnosis  Optimize Your First Visit With Your AML Team

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.

Advice For Newly Diagnosed Patients #patientchat Highlights

Last week, we hosted an Empowered #patientchat on advice for newly diagnosed patients. The #patientchat community came together and shared their best advice and tips.

The Top Tweets and Advice…

 

Ask Questions

 

 

 

 

Seek a Second Opinion

 

 

 

 

Stay Informed


Full Chat

Finding Your Voice #patientchat Highlights

Last week, we hosted an Empowered #patientchat on finding your voice and what stops patients from seeking a second opinion.

A second opinion is crucial to prevent misdiagnosis or unnecessary procedures or surgeries. A study done by Mayo Clinic showed that as many as 88% of patients who get a second opinion go home with a new or refined diagnosis. That shows that only 12% of patients receive confirmation that their original diagnosis was complete and correct. Still, a lot of patients never get second opinions. So, we wanted to chat about this and see what the Empowered #patientchat community had to say, and these were the main takeaways:

The Top Tweets…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Full Chat

Finding the Funny When the Diagnosis Isn’t

It’s not easy hearing your name and [insert dread diagnosis here]. I know this only too well after having to find the funny in my own journey through cancer. Cancer is, however, most often a diagnosis that you fight to a defined end. What’s it like to find the funny in a chronic condition like multiple sclerosis, or HIV, or diabetes?

I have a number of friends dealing with the life-long aftermath of an MS diagnosis. One of them tipped me off to Jim Sweeney several years ago. Jim’s MS journey started with vision problems in 1985, he was officially diagnosed in 1990, and has been wrestling with the impact of that diagnosis – finding the funny most of the time – ever since. Jim’s body of work includes decades of live improv, and his one-man show “My MS & Me,” which you can hear on the BBC Radio 1 site. His MS has progressed to the point that he’s now in a wheelchair, and his public presence is mostly limited to Twitter, where his profile says he “can’t complain but sometimes do,” and YouTube.

Some other sterling examples of funny-or-die in managing chronic disease are Mark S. King’s fabulously funny My Fabulous Disease blog. Mark is HIV+, so he shares information, resources, and myth-busting about all things HIV in his posts and videos. He’s brutally honest about pretty much everything, with plenty of humor to soften the impact of what it’s really like to live with what anti-retroviral treatments have made a chronic illness, not the death sentence it too often was in the first two decades after the viral epidemic started in 1980.

Then there’s the “laugh out loud at the absurdity” Six Until Me site from Kerri Marrone Sparling, who writes about her life as a Type 1 diabetic. She covers everything from exceedingly random TSA security agent behavior when confronted with diabetes-related medical devices, to “pregnant while diabetic” to dealing with the emotional impact of living with a busted pancreas, all with a good dose of highly-readable snark.

How much courage does it take to laugh out loud, in public, at an incurable disease? Jim, and Mark, and Kerri certainly have courage – and comedy chops! – at the level required.

On the provider side, there are a number of docs who are breaking up the waiting rooms and wards.

The most visible of these comedic clinicians is Dr. Zubin Damania, a/k/a ZDoggMD  – “Slightly Funnier Than Placebo” was his tagline for years, before he shifted to “The Voice of Health 3.0.” ZDogg is a hospital medicine specialist who’s built an empire of snark over the last decade plus, some G-rated and some most definitely NSFW. His videos alone guarantee hours of laughter, and he’s one of the best users of Facebook Live around.

I’ve even found a scholarly article entitled The Use of Humor to Promote Patient Centered Care – be warned, though, that (1) it’s a “scholarly article,” meaning that it’s had all the laughs surgically removed and (2) they want $42.50 for it. You have been warned.

What’s my point here? I actually have two:

1. Laughter really is the best medicine.

Humor keeps us in touch with our humanity, and – unless it’s insult comedy, which I do not recommend in the health care arena, unless it’s insulting bad health care – it helps to comfort others in the same situation.

2. Patients and providers need to work together to help each other find the funny.

If you’re a doctor, don’t just say “you’ve got [insert dread diagnosis here], here’s the treatment plan, call if you have any questions, … NEXT!” Look your patients in the eye, and channel your inner comedian whenever it’s appropriate. If you’re a patient, connect with other people in your situation and see how they’re finding the funny. And help your doctors find their funny. If they can’t find it, you should find another doctor.

We all need to work together to break each other up. Laughter can comfort, can calm, it can even heal.

That’s real disruptive health care, no prescription required.

Nancy’s Lung Cancer Journey

No one is ever prepared to hear the words “You have cancer”. Even though (from asking for an x-ray that morphed into a CT scan) I knew there was a large tumor in the middle of my chest, I still wasn’t ready. And the pulmonologist was so kind in delivering the diagnosis. He went down the hall with the needle aspiration from my left clavicular lymph node and returned ½ hour later with a tri-fold paper towel on which he had drawn my lungs with the locations of the tumors – upper right lobe (T1), central lymph nodes of the mediastinal area (in total, about 2” x 5”), and one on the lymph node at my neck. And he said “You have small cell lung cancer (SCLC). There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that it is extremely aggressive. The good news is that it is extremely responsive to treatment. If you are deemed to be “limited stage” (there are only 2 stages for SCLC – I call them good and bad), you have a 30% chance of long-term survival – a normal life.” In mid-August, I thought I’d be dead by Christmas. I spent about 2 minutes on the internet – what I saw was enough to tell me not to look further.

Doctors matter. A lot. I was treated at an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center by several exceptional doctors. What made them exceptional? Their listening and observational skills first and foremost, their dedication to staying current with research, and their caring. I was lucky – I didn’t have to search for them. These women – my primary care physician, my oncologist and my radiation oncologist kept me alive. They made me part of the 30%, even though my diagnosis said I was borderline extensive stage. It only took 5 months of chemotherapy (cisplatin and etoposide) and twice daily radiation during some of those 5 months, along with an episode of sepsis (broad-spectrum antibiotics, 2 blood transfusions, and a week in the hospital), to have me declared “No evidence of disease (NED)” by early December.

While my friends and family celebrated, I didn’t feel like celebrating. My life had been turned upside-down, I felt wrung-out and fatigued all the time, had lost so much weight that nothing fit, and had lost all my hair. And I knew that in January, I had to have 10 days of prophylactic whole brain radiation to kill any errant lung cancer cells (I was pretty sure it would make me stupid!) And that’s when my doctor prescribed an anti-depressant, which helped.

What did I do during this time – besides visit doctors and hospitals?  I walked – a lot. It was the easiest way for me to exercise, and my boxer was happy to help in that regard. I ate well – meaning lots of fruits and vegetables. And I meditated with guided CDs designed for cancer patients. And I kept up with my friends – often meeting one or more of them for lunch downtown. That not only passed the time but kept my spirits as up as they could be – a distraction if you will.

And when it was over, and I was deemed “cured”, I got angry. Angry that no one talked about the number one cancer killer. Through my doctor, I got in touch with the National Lung Cancer Partnership (now merged with the Lung Cancer Research Foundation), got involved in advocacy, and haven’t stopped. For me – it is healing to try to do something – anything – to prevent more people from going through what I went by raising awareness and research funding.

I have also learned that some treatments don’t let you forget that you had them. I had a CT scan every 90 days for the first 5 years after diagnosis. In the 4th year, they saw that my left ventricle was enlarged and referred me to cardiology for cardiomyopathy (heart failure). It was bad – so I went from surviving the #2 killer to facing the #1 killer! But with treatment from a cardiologist who specialized in heart failure from chemotherapy, I now have an implanted medical device, low-dose daily medication, and a nearly normal heart function. There’s also the foot neuropathy I’ve learned to live with (it’s not so bad) and some balance issues (likely from inner ear damage from cisplatin). But I’m alive!! Alive certainly beats the alternative.

ASCO 2018 Lung Cancer Roundtable

A Lung Cancer Roundtable: Takeaways from ASCO 2018

Lung cancer experts Dr. Jeffrey Crawford from Duke and Dr. Edward Kim from Levine Cancer Institute speak about key take-aways from this year’s ASCO meeting including immunotherapy updates, newly identified genes, the role of liquid biopsies and specific questions patients/care partners should be asking as the lung cancer landscape continues to evolve.


Transcript

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Here we go.

Hello and welcome to this Patient Empowerment Network program produced by Patient Power.  I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power, and we’re discussing an update from the big American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting, ASCO, and what it means for patients and family members dealing with lung cancer today.  I want to thank our financial supporters for making grants to support this program, Celgene and Pfizer.

So we have two noted experts with us.  We have Dr. Jeffrey Crawford from Duke University and the Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina, and Dr. Edward Kim from the Levine Cancer Institute down the road also in North Carolina, in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Dr. Crawford, welcome to Patient Power and the Patient Empowerment Network.

Dr. Crawford:

Andrew, thank you.  I’m glad to be here.

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Kim, welcome to you.

Dr. Kim:

Pleasure, Andrew.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Gentlemen, let’s start.  So I walked into the ASCO exhibit hall, which is many football fields wide and long, and I was impressed with so many companies devoted to helping doctors and their patients understand the specific biology, molecular composition of the tumor that somebody might have for example with lung cancer.  Dr. Kim, is this where it’s going, is that sort of precision medicine?  And why is it so critical for patients and their doctors?

Dr. Kim:

Yeah, thanks, Andrew.  I think it’s really important to know how the new standards are changing.  We’ve been used to a lot of therapies and how we assess folks for decease such as biopsies and histological diagnoses, and now it’s not just about that.  It’s about trying to figure out what genes exist that are unique to each person’s individual tumor.  And we know that these genes are differently made up in different folks, so just to call somebody who has a non‑small cell lung cancer, and that’s the area that myself and Dr. Crawford cover, is really not the whole picture any more.

We’ve seen this in breast cancer.  We’ve just kind of come to accept it over the last couple decades, that you’re either a hormone receptor‑positive breast cancer patient or your tumor is HER2 positive or not or you’re a triple negative, and that’s means none of those markers are present.

Well, we were never that sophisticated in lung cancer, frankly, to have the equivalent of a triple negative even though we did, and we started is seeing this in the early 2000s, especially as we looked at first the mutations like EGFR and translocations like ALK and ROS1, and now that number is just really exploding as far as the number of markers that a clinician has to check just at baseline to make the proper assessment to treat a patient with non small‑cell lung cancer these days.

And that’s exciting, but it’s also daunting in that the data and the drugs and markers are changing so frequently that it’s hard to keep up, and even as an expert it’s hard.

Andrew Schorr:

Now, Dr. Crawford, you’re in research a lot as well, and so this multiplying of genes, you keep identifying new ones, right, and then it’s a matter of finding out, well, which genes are important at which time for which patient, right?

Dr. Crawford:

Correct.  As Ed was saying, it’s a complicated task, and I think we get now a lot of information.  When we do next‑generation sequencing, we get literally hundreds of genes.  Some of them are actionable, some aren’t, and really understanding which are and which aren’t and now to interpret that is becoming a field of its own.  So molecular tumor boards have started to try to dissect this at the institutional level so people can sit down with pathologists, (?) like the pathologist‑clinicians, try to work through how to move forward on an individual patient basis.

Andrew Schorr:

So, Dr. Kim, we hear about immunoncology, immunotherapy, and drugs that are being tested in many cancers to try to help the immune system be boosted, I guess, to fight the cancer.  Maybe you could explain that because there was news about that at ASCO, wasn’t there, for lung cancer?

Dr. Kim:

Yeah.  And certainly it seems like every major meeting, Andrew, has news about immunotherapy.  And the really nice part about it, speaking very selfishly, is that there has been a lot of news about immunotherapy and lung cancer, and I get to tease my melanoma colleagues, that, yeah, you know, we know it’s been around for greater than five, six years in melanoma, but it required a large scale sort of cancer to take this into the main stream.

And lung cancer is one of the largest.  It affects so many people out there, and to have these trials testing immunotherapies and these FDA indications, has really transformed things.  What we explain to people is that it’s not like the vaccine programs in the past in that the immune system is a very sort of gray area for a lot of folks.  Some people think you can take vitamins and boost your immune system.  Other people think you just have healthy living it will do it, and all those things contribute because your immune system is really like your micro environment throughout your entire body, and a lot of things affect it, and it affects a lot of things.

But what’s really cool about these newer generation drugs that are impacting the cancer process is that cancers have become smart.  They are able to build up defenses to be sort of stealth inside the body, and so even though there were bad things happening to you your body couldn’t tell that they were cancer cells versus normal cells.  And so these new checkpoint inhibitors have focused on trying to break down the stealth or the defenses that these cancer cells have been using to invade the immune system.

And so now you’re really empowering your own body’s immune system to fight the cancer.  And that’s really exciting.  The side effects, there are some but have generally been very well tolerable.  There are always a percentage of patients who can get a hyperactive immune system, and that’s usually what causes a lot of symptoms we see, but all in all‑‑you know, we use Jimmy Carter as a poster child, he’s like 150 years old, and he’s on an immunotherapy being treated for a stage 4 melanoma and doing very well.  So that’s what my patients see out there, that’s why they’re asking about it.  We have to select the right people who is appropriate.

Andrew Schorr:

Well, Dr. Crawford, let’s talk about selection.  So we’ve alluded to testing to understand what’s at work or what sort of immune levels, we hear these terms PD‑1 and PD‑L1, and they’re even mentioned on telephones commercials for lung cancer drugs.  So how do we know whether this changing world of immunotherapy applies to an individual patient?

Dr. Crawford:

Well, that’s a good question.  So I think we’re learning as we go about biomarkers for immunotherapy, but certainly the one that’s out there most notably is PD‑L1, and so that’s a marker of this protein that Dr. Kim was talking about.  It’s an immune checkpoint, so PD‑L1 when it finds the PD‑1 receptor down regulates or lowers the immune system, and that’s a natural, naturally occurring process.  It’s important so our immune system does get overly revved up, but what happens in cancers it often gets overly depressed and suppressed, so we have inhibitors, drugs that work by inhibiting that reaction that allow the immune system to emerge and attack the cancer.

So what’s really cool about this is that the immune system itself is what destroys the cancer when you take these agents.  This is not like chemotherapy or even targeted therapy where there’s a direct cytotoxic effect on the cells.  This is really enabling your immune system to take over and attack the cancer and destroy it.  So it’s remarkable when we see an x‑ray with cancer disappearing based on restoring the immune system.

So PD‑L1 is clearly an important marker because it’s the way these first‑generation immune checkpoint inhibitors work through that process.  So one would assume that the PD‑L1 measurement would be predictive of who is going to benefit and who is not.  And in some sense it is, but it’s not at all like EGFR testing, where we are pretty confident when we have an EGFR mutation we’ll have a very high response rate, while with PD‑L1 even in patients with expression above 50 percent only about half of them get a good response.

And on the other end patients with very low response, very low levels of PD‑L1, they still have a response of 8 or 10 percent.  So it’s not a perfect marker by any means, but it has been helpful in identifying patients likely to benefit.  And what’s come out of ASCO is more and more about how to select patients for immunotherapy or a combination of chemo and immunotherapy or other options.

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Kim, let’s talk about biopsy for a minute or how you get the information from the patient as to what’s going on and then what to do about it, if you will.  So getting a lung biopsy is not easy, and I know sometimes there’s a problem getting enough tissue to do all the analysis you want, and now we’ve been hearing about more and more companies that are doing liquid biopsy.  Okay.

So here’s Mr. Jones, you want him to have a lung biopsy.  Would there also be a liquid biopsy or‑‑and not just at diagnosis but would you be doing some of this along the way to see if treatment is working?

Dr. Kim:

Yeah, we’ve always been attracted to some of the other cancers that utilize liquid tests, ovarian cancer, CA125, PSA, prostate cancer, although we’re still not really clear on where we’re supposed to be using that to screen patients, but that has given people is principle that they like to follow things.  And that’s why cholesterol, for instance, was such a powerful sort of marker even though the relevance of it has been questioned by cardiologists.  People can see there is an effect.

So, first of all, we have to say that nothing has completely replaced tissue.  That is really the gold standard.  It still is.  I tell our interventionalists, whether it’s a pulmonologist, interventional radiologist or anyone, I don’t want a diagnosis.  I want tissue.  Because they can make a diagnosis by doing some brushings or some cytology, and they can tell me it’s an adenocarcinoma favoring lung.  That is not helpful.  We need to absolutely have data that allows us to send for these molecular tests which includes, as Jeff mentioned, PD‑L1.

We need EGFR mutation, ALK, ROS1, BRAF.  These are all very important markers now that need to be sent.  And in some cases, at some centers they send for the larger panels.  What you get are 3‑ to 500 genes.  I don’t need 3‑ to 500 genes, but there are certainly clinical trials out there that can help match patients into trials based on these genes, so it is some utility.

But the blood‑based markers and the biopsies are improving.  There are definitely very‑‑there are good data that show concordance when they’re positive.  So if you do a blood test and it shows a positive mutation for EGFR, for instance, you can be pretty confident that the tissue has that as well.  The problem is that when you get a negative result.  And the negative result, those percentages aren’t disconcordant because (?) really show the amount of accuracy, and so you can’t take a negative test at face value.  We don’t standardly do liquid biopsies in patients unless the patient really has a contraindication to doing a traditional tissue biopsy.

As far as the surveillance aspect, as you mentioned, we do that on research.  So on our research studies we do follow patients at every cycle with another blood draw, in addition to what they give in labs, so it’s not an extra stick.  It’s just extra biopsy.  And we do try to follow to see if we can see some of these different mutations either go up or down based on how the treatment is working or not working.  And we’re hopeful that this type of research down the road can lead to more predictive assays that are easier to gather so we can either surveil patients to see if they have cancer, if it’s gone away, if it’s come back.

You can imagine somebody who has been treated for cancer, who has no evidence of disease on a CAT scan but maybe with blood surveillance we can get an early sign if something is coming back.  These are all possibilities and are being investigated, but right now it’s really a backup plan if tissue can’t be adequately gathered.

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Crawford, of course you’re doing research as well.  Do you agree with this, where we are now and where we’re headed?

Dr. Crawford:

Absolutely.  I think what’s happened in lung cancer is because of this need for tumor tissue, as Dr. Kim has pointed out, it’s really transformed all the interventional things we’ve been doing.  We were moving in the 90s to smaller and smaller biopsies, smaller and smaller needle aspirations just to make a diagnosis, but now we’ve gone back the other way where we’re retraining our pulmonologists to get larger cores of tissues.  They’re developing new techniques to get more tissue, endobronchial biopsies.  CT interventional people have been enormously helpful for getting core biopsies so we get adequate tumor tissue to do the molecular tests we’ve been talking about.

So that’s really fundamentally important and important to have at every institution hospital across the country.  It’s one thing for Levine or Duke to be able to do this, but it really needs to be done in smaller community hospitals and done well by interventional people who can get the tissue we need because the samples can always be tested at a central site if the pathology labs can’t do it locally.  We have to be able to get the tumor tissue.

Andrew Schorr:

Let’s pull this together for a little bit.  I want to see if I’ve got this right.  So you’re having a revolution now in more genes being identified and trying to decide what’s actionable, whether you have approved medicines or combinations or drugs in trials, that both of you have alluded to, could for research purposes you identify something and where that could offer hope to a patient where otherwise the existing therapies might not match up.

So what actions should patients and family members be talking about?  And you said, Dr. Crawford, like at the community level or if they have a university hospital as a choice to go.  What should they be doing now because obviously anybody diagnosed with lung cancer or their family member, we want the longest life and the best chance right now, and yet you have an evolving field.  So what would‑‑Dr. Crawford, how would you counsel patients and family members so that with what you have available, either as approved therapies or in trials, could be available to them?

Dr. Crawford:

Well with, first, let me back up a second to say we’ve been talking mainly about advanced lung cancer.

Andrew Schorr:

Right.

Dr. Crawford:

So it’s important that patients get diagnosed early.  It’s important that patients who are eligible for CT screening and to go that so we can detect lung cancer at an earlier stage and hopefully offer them curable surgery, and then for them to get evaluated by a multidisciplinary team if they’re in early stages to see is surgery alone the right thing, surgery and chemotherapy, a combination with radiation, so all those standards are still present in early‑stage disease.

Now, as we may talk about, immunotherapy and targeted therapy may have a role there as well, but I think our curative strategies remain intact there.  So it’s very important to have availability of a multidisciplinary team that can really assess cancer at all stages.

For the advanced cancer patients then, what’s particularly important is for every patient to get molecularly defined tumor testing being done.  So we not only need to know the pathology, as Dr. Kim has said.  We really need to know the molecular phenotype of cancer to really make the best treatment approach for patients with advanced disease.  And in most patients that should happen before they ever talk about chemotherapy.  We need to know are there better approaches for that patient, and we’re not going to know that without these tests being done.

Andrew Schorr:

How about you, Dr. Kim?  I mean, still chemotherapy is still around, still in combination.  People understand there are side effects, not that there are not side effects with the new immunotherapies, but people would like to skip to the most effective treatment first.  So what recommendations would you have for our listeners?

Dr. Kim:

Yeah.  You know, we’re talking strictly about the advanced lung cancer patients.  The new standards in non‑small cell, both nonsquamous and squamous, now contain an immunotherapy combined with chemotherapy in markers that are lower selected or unselected.  I agree with Jeff.  You know, the biggest struggle we always want to tell our patients is be patient.  Do not let the chemotherapy start without having the results of your markers.

And that’s where sort of this new diagnosis of cancer comes in, the fear of it growing while you’re waiting a couple of weeks for the results of these markers, but we have to reassure patients it’s okay because if you just wait the extra one to two weeks.

And I understand it could take longer getting the biopsy to get enough tissue, sending it away, taking three weeks, and then your doctor, who is maybe not as sophisticated at reading these very, very, 18‑page reports, take some time to evaluate it.  It could be five weeks right there very easily, and we don’t like to wait that long.

But if you do have a marker present, and if it is‑‑and now almost 50 percent of the patients with non‑small cell have this, have a marker, maybe we’ll be able to give you something in lieu of chemotherapy that’s not a pill, single‑agent immunotherapy.  And certainly as a default now we’re seeing again new standards of care.  New standards of care are combination therapy, chemotherapy with immunotherapy based on data that’s been presented in the last couple months.

And so as a biomarker person I love seeing marker‑enriched populations receiving less therapy, but as we begin to incorporate these drugs in our standard regimens we’re seeing improvements that are undeniable and are forcing us now to readjust or new standards.

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Crawford, so I’ve heard along the way, and I know knowledge is expanding, whether or not some of these newer approaches apply to people whether‑‑you know, whether they smoked or not, whether they had a history.  Where are we now with having the widest array of approaches for the widest array of people whether they’re smokers or not?

Oh, we lost your audio.  Go ahead.

Dr. Kim:

Am I back?

Andrew Schorr:

Yeah.

Dr. Kim:

So smoking is clearly an important factor in outcome for patients, and it’s also somewhat predictive of likelihood of different things.  We know smokers have a lower rate of EGFR and ALK translocations, mutations.  We also know that they have a higher rate of PD‑L1 expression and may be more likely to respond to some of these immunotherapies, but those are just generalized statistics.  And we have smokers who have EGFR mutations, and we have never smokers who respond beautifully to immune checkpoint therapy, so the answer is we have to do the molecular testing and sort out who has what.  Smoking may influence that frequency, but on any individual patient basis we have to have the tests to know how to best to treat them.

Andrew Schorr:

That’s good news.  So, Dr. Kim, you had referred earlier about cancer being kind of wily, if you will.  So is it possible that the molecular testing results at time of diagnosis further down the road may be different?  In other words, some other gene is driving the cancer should it come back or it’s still going, and you need a different approach.  In other words you have to change horses, if you will.

Dr. Kim:

Yeah, that’s a great point, Andrew.  You know, back in 10 years ago, almost 11 years ago when we initiated this trial while I was at MD Anderson called BATTLE, the whole principle was to rebiopsy patients once they completed or once the first line of therapy stopped working.  And for that very point you brought up is that these tumors change.  If you use a baseline tissue that’s a very different environment that that tissue was exposed to.  It has not been treated with chemotherapy, it’s not been under different stressors, and nor has it now begun growing after getting chemotherapy.

So a patient, just as you say, who has been treated maybe there was some success but then it‑‑with chemotherapy it’s always a little transient, and then now the tumor is growing despite being treated, that could be a different tumor.  It’s been shown also by the Boston group that you get transformation to small cell, of all things, in about 15 percent of patients.  And so different histologists altogether.  So who knows what will evolve out of the cancer that’s been treated that is now beginning to grow.

And so I think it’s really important to have a repeat biopsy when this occurs to help again drive the appropriate treatment.  And, as we talked about earlier, if it’s difficult sometimes a liquid biopsy can even be done at this setting if it’s difficult or the patient is has a difficult area to get tissue.

Andrew Schorr:

So, Dr. Crawford, you have lung cancer meetings throughout the year, but the ASCO meeting with like 40,000 people across all cancers from around the world, it’s a big meeting.  You’re involved in research and, of course, with existing therapies as well, how positive do you feel about change and even the rate of change to offer hope for people dealing with lung cancer today?

Dr. Crawford:

I’m as excited about lung cancer as I’ve ever been, and I’ve been doing this for quite a while.  The rate of change is, as Ed has pointed out, is dramatic.  The number of new agents that we have seen over the last year, both targeted therapies and immunotherapies, and the rate of change, it’s not just ASCO every year.  AACR, a meeting that’s normally more basic research, had major breakthrough discoveries (?) inaudible, as well I’m sure this year, and Europe will have additional new discoveries as they did last year.

So it’s really changing every few months, our guidelines through NCCN have to be changed almost monthly, and I think that’s a good thing.  It’s telling us that new knowledge is really being moved very quickly into the patient care arena.

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Kim, so we’ve talked largely about non small‑cell lung cancer, and you’ve rattled off some of the different types.  There’s a percentage of people, smaller percentage, but people with small cell‑lung cancer.  Were there things you were hearing there at ASCO that could offer hope or in research to help this population as well?

Dr. Kim:

And certainly Jeff is the expert here.  He’s had a long career with it.  Small cell has always been that tough cancer where you get teased a little bit.  Again, if you’re fortunate enough to find someone in limited stage you can try to deliver curative intent therapy.  If they happen to be in an extensive stage it really becomes about trying to give chemotherapy that has a high response rate, and so you feel good about that, but then the difficult aspect of it is that in fact it doesn’t last forever.  And so when it does again not respond, it’s not responding, we’ve got to figure out some things.

The immunotherapies have been very widely tested, and so there are some therapies that are coming.  There are some that are approved, nivolumab, ipilimumab have been used.  They’re trying to incorporate in combination with chemotherapy with these immunotherapies.  There are some other drug classes, (? Phonetic) roba‑T and others that are being looked at very closely in small cell.  So I love the fact that there’s spillover in the small cell because it wasn’t really a high area of importance for a lot of development of drugs, which was unfortunate because we still see those patients, but it’s nice to see that there’s a lot of studies been looking at these types of drugs.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Dr. Crawford, any other comment you wanted to make about small cell?

Dr. Crawford:

I would say it’s an area that’s been difficult to see advances.  Small cell presents generally at more advanced stage, so very few patients can have surgery.  Chemo and radiation can still be curative for early‑stage patients with lymph node involvement who don’t have distant disease, but in the advanced stage setting we’ve been using the same chemotherapy for 20 years.  Our supportive care has gotten better, we’ve made some advances, but we’re hoping immune therapy and others will make a difference.

It’s kind of interesting.  Small cell, you would think, since it’s prevalent largely in smokers, people with smoking exposure, could be very‑‑a lot of mutations being present.  We know that total mutation burden is a nice predictor of benefit in non small‑cell lung cancer, so we think that would‑‑might play out here.  There is PD‑L1 expression in small cell but it’s not as intense.  And there is some separation by PD‑L1 score of benefit for immune checkpoint therapy in small cell, but the responses in general are less than they have been in non‑small cell.  So we’re going to need more, more homework to figure this one out, but I think we’re taking some steps in the right direction.

And as Dr. Kim pointed out, roba‑T is a targeted therapy, maybe one of the first targeted therapies we’ve had in small cell that attacks antigen present on a lot of small cell called (?) B L L 3, and there are other therapies being developed against that B L L 3 because we know that’s an important marker.  So I hope we will see agents that are truly targeted therapies in small cell in the next few years.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  So I think as we pull this together, and I think you were rattling off some acronyms, and that’s sort of what we’ve been seeing a lot in lung cancer now.  We’ve talked about EGFR and ALK and ROS1, and we talked about also PD‑L1.  So I know for patients it can be confusing, but look back, review this program with Dr. Crawford and Dr. Kim were saying about if you have someone diagnosed with advanced lung cancer to get that molecular test (? Inaudible) and make sure that the experts like this in your major center like this, that they have the information.  And then if you need to (? Inaudible) you may get (? Inaudible).  So (? Inaudible) but there’s help in second opinions from people like this.  Dr. Crawford, did I get it right?

Dr. Crawford:

I think you did.  You’re a good student.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  All right.  Well, we have two professors with us, Dr. Edward Kim from the Levine Cancer Institute in Charlotte, North Carolina, my old home down, and Dr. Jeffrey Crawford from Durham and Duke University.  I’ll say that even though I went to the University of North Carolina eight miles down the road.

Dr. Kim:

You had to say that.

Andrew Schorr:

Yeah.  Thank you.  Thank you both for your work in treating patients and in researching, helping give us a window into this ASCO conference, but I get the sense you‑‑you said it, Dr. Crawford‑‑you’re having meetings every couple of months and talking to your peers all the time, and this is a faster changing field.  Thank god, right?  So thank you so much.  Dr. Crawford from Duke, thank you so much for being with us.

Dr. Crawford:

Andrew, thank you so much and thanks to all the patients who are joining in today.  It’s for you we do all that.

Andrew Schorr:

Yeah, thank you.  And Dr. Kim, thanks.  I interviewed you years ago, and you were at MD Anderson.  Now you’re in Charlotte and you have a wonderful program there.  Thank you for being with us.

Dr. Kim:

Thank you, Andrew.  It’s our pleasure, and again, we’re just as excited as the patients because we get to offer them these really cool therapies and research studies.

Andrew Schorr:

Right.  Okay.  All right.  All the best to our patients and family members watching.  For the Patient Empowerment Network, I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power.  Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

What Does It Mean To Be An Empowered Patient?

The term “patient empowerment” is among the top buzzwords in health care circles, but as with many buzzwords, they can mean different things to different people.  The term is most often used to emphasize the value of having patients assert greater control over their health and health care.  WHO defines empowerment as “a process through which people gain greater control over decisions and actions affecting their health” (WHO 1998).  This shift is due in large part to the use of technology that facilitates increased patient access to information via the Internet, peer-to-peer sharing, consumer health devices, and mobile apps.

In a recent Twitter chat, I set out to explore what it means to be an empowered patient today.  The global participation of those who shared their views on the topic shows that patient empowerment is something of universal interest.

Seven Essential Components of Patient Empowerment

1. Information

Information is fundamental to the process of patient empowerment.  Rare disease advocate and parent, Anne Lawlor (@22Q11_Ireland) believes that “an informed educated parent is an empowered one.”  Patients make the best decisions when armed with the right information.  To make genuinely informed decisions about our treatment we must have access to the relevant information needed to make those decisions. “Being informed is key to empowerment for me,” says specialist palliative care social worker, Deirdre McKenna (@KennaDeirdre). “Accurate information, clearly communicated and an available space to discuss and explore options and choices.”

Research shows that access to the right information, at the right time, delivered in the right way, leads to an increase in a patient’s desire and ability to take a more active role in decision-making.  Open and transparent communication and access to a patient’s own medical records is a key driver of patient empowerment. Medical Director and Consultant Surgeon, Dermot O’Riordan (@dermotor) believes to truly empower patients “we should be aiming for the “Open Notes” principles of default sharing of all documents.”    As patient advocate and CEO of Medistori Personal Health Record, Olive O’Connor (@MediStori) points out, “the patient is at the very core of every single service they use – they know everything there is to know about themselves, in the home and outside of it. Yet patient records are not kept with them!”

The OpenNotes initiative began in 2010 as a year-long demonstration project, with 105 primary care physicians at three diverse U.S. health care centers inviting 20,000 patients to read visit notes online through patient portals. Findings from the study suggest that shared notes may improve communication, safety, and patient-doctor relationships, and may help patients become more actively involved with their health and health care.  Evidence also shows a sixty percent improvement in the patient’s ability to adhere to medications, a major problem with managing chronic pain conditions. What is key to the discussion on patient empowerment is that this initiative “demonstrates how a simple intervention can have an enormous impact, even absent advanced technology” (my emphasis).

2. Health Literacy

While access to information is a key driver of patient information, health literacy is  defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” (National Library of Medicine).  Health literacy should come before digital literacy. “Health literacy is crucial,” says healthcare analyst, Matthew Loxton (@mloxton), “and you cannot get empowerment without health literacy.” Soo Hun (@soo_cchsc), Programme Manager at the Centre for Connected Health and Social Care, believes “digital is a key aspect but health literacy, even basic literacy is a must. Not all things digital requires tech know-how but all health information requires basic literacy. An app for meds reminder is no use if a patient lacks understanding of why medication is needed in the first place or why they need to be taken promptly.  We spend too little time transferring knowledge to patients.”

This transfer of knowledge is crucial to the empowerment process, according to Olive O’Connor. “At the first point of contact with the patient,” she says, “education on how, what, why, where and when in relation to a condition or medication should be talked through fully. All other tools (digital, leaflets etc.) should come after the conversation which is key to empowerment.”

3. Digital Literacy

Cornell University defines digital literacy as “the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share, and create content using information technologies and the Internet.”  It’s interesting to note that opinions vary on whether digital literacy is essential to patient empowerment. RN turned patient advocate and health activist, Kayoko Ky Corbet (@kkcorbet) doesn’t believe that “digital literacy is an absolute requirement, but the ability to find accurate relevant information, and understand the information is.” Breast cancer advocate, Jennifer (@vitalfrequencis) agrees that “digital literacy is not fundamental and should not be part of the equation. Empowerment needs to be across all socioeconomic groups. Otherwise…a whole bunch of patients may never be empowered.”

Dermot O’Riordan is convinced that “whilst it sounds nice to say that digital is not ‘necessary’ for patient empowerment, in practice it is going to be pretty tough to do it properly/completely without digital.” Transplant recipient and rare disease patient, Carol McCullough (@Imonlyslightly ) also believes “digital literacy strengthens the empowerment process.” She too points to “access to your medical information online” as a key component of the empowerment process. “Knowing your personal medical data is strength, as is education about your illness,” she says.

Maternity campaigner, SeánaTalbot (@SeanaTalbot) believes that “those with long-term conditions and access to technology have a better chance of accessing information and support.”  Indeed many patients have found in the online world of peer-to-peer healthcare an environment in which they are supported to become a more empowered participant in their healthcare. As I look back on my own empowerment journey, my progress was advanced step-by-step by learning more about my disease initially from doctors, then through Internet searches, and most helpful of  all  through patient peers online. Finding and being part of a patient community can be an important step on the path to empowerment.

4. Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy, as it relates to healthcare, is belief in your ability to effect change in outcomes so that you can achieve your personal health goals. The patient empowerment definition which comes to us from the European Patient Forum describes empowerment as a process that “helps people gain control over their own lives and increases their capacity to act on issues that they themselves define as important.”

Developing a sense of personal control over your health is in itself empowering. The empowered patient is confident in their ability to manage their condition. When unsure about where to go or what to do next they will feel confident to ask questions of the healthcare professionals providing their care.  This confidence comes easier to some than others, and even the most confident may need guidance from their doctors in managing their disease. Endocrinologist, Iris Thiele Isip Tan, MD (@endocrine_witch) points out that “some of my patients are surprised when I teach them how to adjust/titrate insulin doses. Apparently not all MDs ‘allow’ this. Some need handholding because they get anxious about the responsibility.”

Digital leader and physiotherapist, Linda Vernon (@VernonLinda), believes “for authentic patient engagement to occur, we need to establish what the patient brings to the table, something akin to an individual, personal take on Asset-Based Community Development – perhaps we could think of it as Asset-Based Personal Development, supporting the patient to tap into their own internal, community or environmental resources to improve their health and wellbeing.  Engaging patients should be as much about exploring what they can do for themselves and to help the health and care system, as what we professionals can offer to the patient.”

5. Mutual Respect

The healthcare professional is the most important contact point for the patient and the system and (dis)empowerment often manifests in the patient/professional relationship. At the heart of the empowerment approach is seeing the patient-professional relationship as a partnership of equals.  Carol McCullough describes it as a reciprocal process of “mutual respect for what each person knows and being allowed to make informed choices. It is not about command and control.”

This is a partnership approach that seeks to balance clinician expertise with patient preference. It recognizes that while healthcare professionals are the experts in their knowledge of a disease, patients are the experts by experience. The empowerment process is about sharing both knowledge and experience to set new goals and learn with and from each other. Dr Kit Byatt (@Laconic_doc) agrees. “Many patients are experts”, he says, “especially rare disease patients.  I’ve learned from many in my career.”

Building better relationships and seeing the patient as more than ‘just a patient’ was a recurring theme in the Twitter chat. Elena Vaughan (@StigmaStudyIE), who is researching the impact of HIV-related stigma in Ireland, believes that “an empowered patient is treated with respect, involved in shared decision-making regrading care and treatment, and is not patronised. For people with chronic conditions, effective communication, continuity of care and establishing a relationship of trust is very important.” Sometimes, as ME blogger and patient advocate, Sally Burch (@KeelaToo) points out, “not all patients are lacking confidence to speak. The problem is being heard.”

Patient and community advocate, Triona Murphy (@Murpht01) advises doctors to get to know your patients as individuals.  “Know your patient!!…and their family,” she says. “No one size fits all! BUT there was/is still a culture of the ‘person’ stops at the door of the hospital and that person is now a patient.’”  As antibiotic resistance campaigner, Vanessa Carter (@_FaceSA) says, “I might be a patient but I am also a creative director by profession. No one recognises me on that level. They see me as an underdog.”

6. Shared Decision Making

This partnership approach allows for Shared Decision-Making (SDM) – the conversation that happens between a patient and clinician to reach a healthcare choice together. Examples include decisions about surgery, medications, self-management, and screening and diagnostic tests. There is ample research which suggests that health outcomes are better in patients who are more involved in decisions about their treatment.

In the SDM model, the clinician provides current, evidence-based information about treatment options, describing their risks and benefits, and the patient expresses his or her preferences and values. Matthew Loxton points to how seldom we have metrics to track whether patient goals are being met. “Yet this,” he believes, “is THE most important part of quality.”

7. A Facilitating Environment

Linda Vernon defines patient engagement as “activating the person’s inner assets and supporting them to make the best use of them.” Being supported is a key component of patient empowerment. Many patients would like to take more responsibility for their own health and care, given the opportunities and support to do so. Empowerment does not happen in a vacuum: it is a two-way process. The patient needs a counterpart in the health professional who welcomes the patient’s involvement and knows how to create an enabling healthcare environment. Kayoko Ky Corbet states she became an independent patient advocate when she realized most doctors simply do not have the time (and often skills) to take this facilitating role and promote shared decision-making that patients desperately need. As Patient Critical Co-op (@PatientCritical) puts it, “if you have a patient who wants to advocate for themselves, and become informed, you also need a doctor that respects the patient’s right to share decision making.”

Is It Empowerment or Participation?

Not everyone likes to use the term “empowerment”, as it implies that it is an authority given to someone to do something. “I balk at the idea that professionals can ‘give’ (usually on their terms) power to the powerless,” says Alison Cameron (@allyc375). “We need to create conditions whereby people can “empower” themselves.” Seána Talbot agrees that patient empowerment “doesn’t mean ‘giving’ people power.’ Rather it’s about ‘enabling’ them to recognise and use their power.”

Perhaps the term ‘participation’ (which is a more active state) is preferable? This distinction is important because empowerment cannot be imposed ‘top down’ (although it can be facilitated).  Sharon Thompson (@sharontwriter) believes that “patients should not be pressurised or need to be in a position of ‘power.’ It should be automatic that a patient is central and key to their care. Patients are automatically empowered when they are respected as being people who are entitled to understand and know about their care.”

Neither is patient empowerment about the patient taking full control or shifting responsibility to the patient.  “If the empowerment amounts to abandonment”, says Matthew Loxton, “then the patient’s health goals are not being met. Patient empowerment should never be an excuse for abandoning or burdening the patient.”

Rather, the empowerment approach, as defined by the European Patient Foundation (EPF) “aims to realise the vision of patients as ‘co-producers’ of health and as integral actors in the health system.”  Caregiver Reinhart Gauss (@ReinhartG) agrees that “patient advocates want to work with not against doctors – to share experiences and to grow in knowledge.”  Vanessa Carter is clear that “we still want our doctors, but they are not there 24/7 so patients need the right tools to make self-care possible.”

Equally, it is about recognizing that there are degrees of involvement and not all patients wish to be ‘empowered.’  There is a spectrum of interest in wanting to assume an active role in care – from being passively receptive to fully engaged. It is up to the patients themselves to choose their own level of engagement. Pharmacist Chris Maguire (@chris_magz) sees this choice as the essence of empowerment. Patients “get to decide how much they want to look into things and take control. Or they want to be guided on the journey and have trust in their healthcare providers. But the key is that they decide the level of interaction and are not dictated to.”  Kayoko Ky Corbet agrees that “true patient empowerment should be about helping patients get involved at their highest potential or at the level they choose.” However, she says “it’s also important to keep the option of involvement open. Ideally patients should get opportunities to change their minds to participate in decision-making later.”

Empowerment as an Ongoing Process

Empowerment is a non-binary, non-linear process. Your needs may change over time. You might feel empowered in a certain context, but disempowered in another. Healthcare communicator, Michi Endemann (@MichiEndemann) makes the distinction that “talking about empowerment as a healthy person is quite different than talking about it as a patient.”  As patient advocate, Rachel Lynch (@rachelmlynch) puts it, “it can be quite tiring being empowered when all you want to be is well.” A sentiment echoed by Kathy Kastner (@KathyKastner), founder of Best Endings, who clarifies how “to me ‘empowered’ assumes I’m feeling physically and mentally up to the task of ‘being engaged’. I’ve seen powerhouses who cannot bring themselves to take responsibility for their own health.”

Mental health advocate and co-founder of #DepressionHurts, Norah (@TalentCoop) calls attention to the fragile nature of empowerment. “Even the strongest can quickly feel disempowered by a deterioration in health,” she says. “Fear disempowers. Sometimes it’s a case of ‘can’t’ not ‘won’t.’”

For those who feel ready for a greater degree of participation in their healthcare (and that of their family and loved ones), Jennifer advises that “being willing to self-advocate, along with self-confidence, communication skills, compromise, research skills, and relationship building” are some of the key traits and skills you need to become an empowered patient. Terri Coutee (@6state), patient advocate and founder of DiepCjourney Foundation, adds that “empowered patients do their research, ask questions, go to appointments organized, and take a friend to help listen.”

Barriers to Patient Empowerment and Overcoming Challenges

What are some of the current barriers to involving patients more in their care? Jennifer points to a “lack of adequate time during the doctor’s visit (on both sides), language barriers, technology barriers, generation gaps, and cultural gaps.”  The solution?  “All solved by building good relationships,” says Jennifer.

Norah also calls attention to the technology barriers. “For older patients simple things like communication (hearing), or uninformed changes are extremely disempowering; as is over reliance on technology for a generation who may not have ‘tech’ understanding or access.”  Tim Delaney (@FrancosBruvva), Head of Pharmacy at a leading hospital in Ireland highlights the fact that “in acute hospitals we treat huge numbers of elderly people whose engagement with social media and new technology is lower. We need to design technology that meets their usability needs AND use whatever suits them best be it old tech or new.” Soo Hun agrees that “the tech savvy few have quicker and better access to health information and therefore can have choice and autonomy. To reverse that we need to make technology ubiquitous and make health information and choice easily accessible.”

Whilst Vanessa believes it should be “governmental policy to have digital resources in place, for example, disease specific websites / apps supported by health authorities,” Kayoko believes it can start with “tech-savvy advocates (like me) who could help patients learn to use simple digital tools.”

Matthew Loxton sees a core barrier to empowerment to be “the large knowledge/power gradients between patients and health care providers. Without access to their data, trustworthy sources of medical knowledge, and the power to execute their choices in achieving health goals, empowerment is an empty phrase.”  Triona Murphy echoes this systemic challenge by clarifying that “the whole system needs to understand the patient’s right to be equal partners in their care. IF that is what the patient wants.”

Sometimes the fear of being labelled a difficult patient can be a barrier to empowerment. “Some patients feel uncomfortable challenging the judgement or actions of their caregivers for the fear of being labelled as ‘difficult’, of offending staff and/or because of concerns of compromising their healthcare and safety,” says Tim Delaney.

Final Thoughts

Not everyone wants to be empowered in making decisions about their care, and not every doctor wants to take the time. Some doctors use medical terminology which is incomprehensible to patients, while some patients have low health literacy skills or come from cultural backgrounds that lack a tradition of individuals making autonomous decisions.  That said, Carol McCullough points out that while “not everyone may want to be empowered, for the health service to be sustainable, more people are going to have to take on more responsibility.”

Medical Doctor and Chair of Technical Advisory Board, Pavilion Health, Dr Mary Ethna Black (@DrMaryBlack) points to the inevitability of the shift towards patient empowerment. “Empowerment is an inevitable shift that is happening anyway, “she says. “We cannot turn back the tide or turn off the internet.”

Kayoko Ky Corbet agrees that we “must understand that patients making informed decisions is the ultimate way to reduce waste, pain and regrets in healthcare. It’s also morally the right thing to do!”  Patient Critical Co-op also believes in the moral imperative that “empowerment essentially means a group or society recognizing your right. Patient empowerment exists as an action patients can take to improve themselves, but the key to achieving that improvement is having a group, organization, or state enshrine and recognize those rights.” In fact, the Alma Ata Declaration defined civic involvement in healthcare as both a right and a duty: “The people have the right and duty to participate individually and collectively in the planning and implementation of their healthcare.” The Declaration highlights the collective dimension of empowerment and the importance of action towards change. By working together to think internationally and act nationally we can draw on each other’s experiences so that as individuals and as a collective we can work towards better outcomes for all patients.  To quote Terri Coutee, “When we gather our collective empowered voices, we feel a strong responsibility to give voice to others.”


I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Dr Liam Farrell in facilitating the Twitter discussion on which this article is based.


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