What Healthcare Trends Are Observed in MPNs?

What Healthcare Trends Are Observed in MPNs? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

MPN Empowerment Leads Jeff and Summer share trends they’ve observed since Summer’s initial diagnosis of myelofibrosis a few years ago. They share recent studies they’ve viewed and are following. Jeff gives a charge to viewers to be your own empowered patient and keep up with research when you can. “Be your own advocate.”

Videos Featuring Jeff and Summer:

Roles Reversed: Taking Care of Your Care Partner

Patient and Care Partner Address the Mental Aspects of an MPN

How Can Care Partners Combat Burnout


Transcript:

Jeff:

Hi, I’m Jeff.

Summer:

And I’m Summer.

Jeff:

And we’re your Network Managers (Editor’s Note: Now referred to as Empowerment Leads) for Myeloproliferative Neoplasms for the Patient Empowerment Network. And, we’re here today to talk to you about healthcare trends in MPN medicine, basically.

Summer:

I was diagnosed with myelofibrosis over three years ago. And at the time, they could only offer me one medication, Jakafi (ruxolitinib), which for me work but doesn’t work for everybody. So, I’ve had good luck with it and I haven’t really had any other symptoms.

Jeff:

But this is an exciting time in the MPN medicine because since that time, there have been two more medications released to control myelofibrosis. One called fedratinib. And just last month, pacritinib was released and approved by the FDA. So now there are three medications that can be used to treat the symptoms of myelofibrosis.

There are currently no medications that can cure a person of myelofibrosis. The only cure, currently, is a stem-cell transplant. But some exciting developments are happening that may even be able to cure it.

I just read an article that some scientists have found that the medication used in breast care – breast cancer treatment causes remission in bone marrow fibrosis in mice. So they’re working along the way to see if that will be effective in humans, eventually. And that might be, potentially, a cure for myelofibrosis. Those are exciting trends in the MPN research and medicine world.

Summer has other information that’s useful though.

Summer:

Yeah, that’s really exciting about the new medication. I was looking up what the Mayo Clinical has to say and being happy and having a good attitude really enhances the immune system. There is a chemical that you get that comes from being happy that really, really keeps the disease from being more serious.

So anyway, that’s what I believe in because I’m an actor and so I don’t get into the medical thing, but I know Jeff is brilliant for it. So, that’s exciting all along having a good attitude and the new developments in medication.

Jeff:

So, keep those in mind, consult with your healthcare provider, and you need to be your own empowered patient and keep up with the research by yourself. It’s all available online, no problems at all, just Google it and you’ll be able to keep up yourself. You have to be your own advocate.

Until next time, I’m Jeff.

Summer:

I’m Summer and, wait a minute, this is our little baby, Zelda.

Five Tips to Participate in MPN Care and Treatment Decisions

How can myeloprolferative neoplasm (MPN) patients become more active in their care? In the “How Should You Participate in MPN Care and Treatment Decisions?” program, expert Dr. Abdulraheem Yacoub of the University of Kansas Cancer Center shares five key tips MPN patients can take for a more active role for optimal health outcomes.

1. Become a Patient Self-Advocate

It’s vital to have the ability to advocate on your own behalf no matter your age at diagnosis. And some MPN patients will be diagnosed at a relatively young age and will have different MPN care providers over the course of their disease. These patients need to get accustomed with the idea of care approaches changing over time.

2. Get Involved and Build Your Village

Being involved in your well-being as a patient is of utmost importance, and thinking about your support network is recommended as one of your early steps as a patient. Think about who among your friends, family, co-workers, and spiritual community might be able to help support you – and ask your MPN care provider about support resources if you need some additional help.

3. Bring a Friend or Loved One to Appointments

It’s important to have someone else at your appointments with you to help understand the information you receive and to also take notes and to ask questions if it’s helpful for you. Having a second set of ears is especially important with your early visits about treatment options, and the use of telemedicine makes it easier for loved ones to help support your appointments.

4. Get a Second Opinion

Second opinions are no longer the taboo that they were once perceived as. Listen to medical facts given to you from your MPN specialist and from your primary treating physician. And if you want a second opinion from another MPN specialist, this practice is easier to carry out now through telemedicine.

5. Seek Out Credible Resources and Research News

Keep yourself informed about the latest MPN research and treatment news by visiting credible online resources. In addition to PEN, check The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) and MPN Research Foundation. The annual meetings of expert conferences like the American Society of Hematology (ASH) and American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) bring research updates for MPN online resources to cover.

By taking a more active role in their care, MPN patients can help determine the best care and treatment plan for optimal health outcomes.

MPN Patient Profile: Robyn Rourick Part 2

Read the first part of Robyn’s MPN journey here…

Picking up after 26 years of watchful monitoring of her myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN), scientist Robyn Rourick was then referred for an allogeneic stem cell transplant by her MPN specialist, Dr. Gotlib. The transplant team started working through the matching process for a bone marrow transplant donor, which often begins with close biological relatives. Although Robyn’s only sibling wasn’t a transplant match, a person considered a near perfect transplant match for Robyn was found.

At that point in her journey, the possibility of entering a Phase II clinical trial called ORCA-1 was presented by Robyn’s transplant doctor. She discovered that the ORCA-1 treatment had the potential to completely eliminate graft-versus-host disease (GVHD). The clinical trial made sense to her. In Robyn’s trained scientific mind, she agreed that the trial was founded on sound scientific rationale with the potential for clear benefit and signed up for it. She researched other things like whether the transplant team could look at biomarkers to guard against graft-versus-host disease, but she decided to take the clinical trial path as her best option.

As for her feelings about the stem cell transplant, Robyn felt there was likely going to be a positive outcome for her due to the ORCA-1 clinical trial. Her knowledge about the trial really brought her a lot of comfort and put her at ease for the time she’d be around her family post-transplant. Robyn was lucky because her doctor was actually the primary investigator on the study. When he presented the transplant study as an option, that’s when she started to do more searching to find what patient advocacy groups were out there.

Looking back on her MPN journey, Robyn wishes that physicians would provide their patients with more patient advocacy resources, such as those available through organizations like Patient Empowerment Network (PEN). She feels fortunate that she discovered PEN through another patient advocacy website, and she firmly believes in PEN’s mission of empowering patients to gain knowledge to advocate on their own behalf. “I had the realization that in the clinical trial I was in, I was only the sixth patient, and the technology was stellar in terms of what we’re trying to do in terms of cell therapy. I just felt like patients need to know about the treatment advancements, and PEN is an excellent resource for learning about treatment and support options that I wanted to share my knowledge and patient experience with.” 

Robyn was fortunate to have a team of physicians in whose knowledge and treatment recommendations she could trust. She’s  tremendously grateful, because she knows it’s not always the case, and so offers this advice for others, “Make sure that you’re comfortable with your physicians. And if not, then move on. Don’t be afraid to reach out and to make other connections to other doctors, even across the globe. You shouldn’t hesitate to request a conference call with another provider to see if they’re aligned with your diagnosis and your watchful waiting or treatment recommendations. Patients must have the utmost confidence going through their cancer journey.”

As for the scientists who handled her sample in the ORCA-1 trial, Robyn was able to meet the scientists and saw the analytical data of her sample. She was highly impressed with the protocols that they used with the samples. Robyn was just the sixth myelofibrosis patient to join the trial. To have spent her life working on medicines for patients and then to be on the receiving end of this cutting-edge treatment for transplants made her feel very privileged. 

In her life post-transplant, Robyn has continued periodic blood work for routine monitoring and has been doing well. Two years following her transplant, Robyn’s myelofibrosis is in remission, and she has no evidence of fibrosis in her bone marrow. Her test numbers have been progressing nicely, and she hasn’t needed any additional treatment since undergoing the transplant. “I don’t have a single regret. I haven’t had a pimple, an itch, a scratch, absolutely nothing. My life has resumed exactly how it was before the transplant.”

In reflecting on her patient experience, Robyn offers this additional advice to other cancer patients, “Take a deep breath and give it some time to play out. The moment that I heard the word cancer and the risks with rapid progression, I had myself dead and buried. In my mind, what I needed to plan for was death. Prepare my family. Get everything in order. And to me, that was going to be the ultimate outcome. But then as things unfolded, I had conversations, did a little bit of research, and found out I did have some options. Things weren’t so negative in terms of progression and mortality. Don’t jump to the most negative outcome possible.”

MPN Patient Profile: Robyn Rourick Part 1

Though Robyn Rourick is a scientist by training and works for a biotechnology company, she took a mind-body approach to her myeloproliferative neoplasm (MPN) journey. The time that passed between Robyn’s initial MPN diagnosis and when she finally needed treatment was incredibly – and nearly shockingly – long. She was diagnosed with essential thrombocythemia (ET) 26 years after elevated platelets were shown on a routine blood test. After she saw a hematologist, they performed a bone marrow biopsy and concluded she didn’t have myelofibrosis and received the ET diagnosis. Robyn recalls of the time of her diagnosis, “I didn’t know about myeloproliferative disorders. Not many people did at the time. Nobody mentioned that I could potentially have an MPN.” 

Robyn’s blood levels were monitored over the years, and her platelets started to decrease. Though she didn’t realize at the time, her platelets were decreasing because her bone marrow was becoming more fibrotic. She was also tested for the early gene mutations (JAK2) that were discovered as more MPN research occurred but tested negative . She later switched to another hematologist who was very tuned into the gene connections. He looked at Robyn’s medical data comprehensively and was extremely attentive to any minor changes. As her blastocytes began shifting, he urged her to go see MPN specialist Dr. Gotlib. Dr. Gotlib did further analyses and classified her as having myelofibrosis, noting that when she was diagnosed with ET that her original healthcare team also couldn’t have  ruled out pre-fibrotic myelofibrosis at that time. Fortunately, Dr. Gotlib stated if he had diagnosed her with her original blood test 26 years prior, he would have recommended to simply watch and wait while monitoring Robyn’s blood levels on a regular basis. 

Although Robyn felt healthy and had no symptoms besides an enlarged spleen, as Dr. Gotlib dug deeper into her genetic profile, he found a unique mutation that suggested she was at risk for an escalation into acute myeloid leukemia mutation. He recommended Robyn for an immediate allogeneic stem cell transplant for her MPN treatment.    

Robyn then learned that graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) was a major concern for the transplant process, which can be debilitating. So she began to seek patient advocacy resources to inform her MPN journey. “I felt desperate and wanted to meet people who had myelofibrosis who successfully came through transplant. I didn’t want to just talk to a transplant person with a different disease.” Robyn went through some patient connection programs – including Be the Match, Caring Connections Program, and Patient Power – and was able to meet a few people and became quite close with one patient. 

She learned that even though transplant will cure your disease, doctors don’t always elaborate with patients on the potential for a compromised lifestyle due to  graft-versus-host disease. Sometimes patients will come through transplant in worse condition than before the treatment. Robyn had major fears about going through transplant and being able to work and do her extracurricular activities post-transplant. “I felt like I was going to be a letdown for my family and colleagues and didn’t tell my work until I was preparing to go out on leave, which in retrospect was silly.” After telling her manager, Robyn was given complete support, and realized she could have avoided carrying so much anxiety.

“For me, self-education and advocacy are important to enable yourself to have conversations about what’s possible in terms of your treatment. You don’t have to develop an in-depth understanding, but enough to have the ability to be conversational. If you’re proposed a certain pathway, it’s good to know enough to ask why. And if you’ve done some research on your own, then you can ask why not an alternate treatment approach. I think it’s really important to have some knowledge, because it builds your confidence to be able to move forward with what’s being proposed.” 

“Give it time, allow yourself to digest the information, have conversations about it, and develop your own understanding. At first, I was very closed about my diagnosis. I told my immediate family, and I told one very close friend who had gone through autologous transplant. The more that I began to talk about it and the more that I included people in the story, the easier my journey became.” Robyn also saw a cancer therapist who made some really good points to her. “She told me that ‘we’re all going to die of something, but most of us don’t know what that really looks like.’” In Robyn’s case, she had the opportunity to learn more about her disease, guide it, and direct her journey. And that opened up a whole new perspective.

The cancer therapist walked Robyn through some exercises: “What is it you’re afraid of? What do you have control over? Allowing yourself to gain control over some things will build your confidence that you can do this.” Robyn also encourages other patients to engage their network of friends and family and realize that it’s okay to depend on people. It’s not your fault that you have this diagnosis. Getting over the apprehension of telling people about your diagnosis and embracing help from others are key pieces of advice.

Robyn views patient empowerment as essential to the patient journey. She discovered Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) through another patient advocacy website and felt it brought her MPN patient experience full circle in terms of learning what’s available. “As I’m learning more about PEN, I’m just dazzled by the different forums they have to enable knowledge transfer, support systems, and advocacy.” 

Read the second part of Robyn’s MPN journey here…

Advocacy Through Various Mediums with an MPN Patient and Caregiver

Advocacy Through Various Mediums with an MPN Patient and Caregiver from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

What is patient advocacy and how can you advocate? MPN Network Managers Jeff and Summer discuss the various ways in which they advocate. In addition to volunteering with PEN, Jeff actively participates in a support group. Summer who is living with MPN has decided to advocate through her humor. Make sure to watch to see a snippet of her stand-up routine! 

“Our challenge to you is, as a patient find a way to give your knowledge of how you’re handling your disease to others and you too can become a strong patient advocate.” 

Want to connect with Jeff and Summer? Email them at question@powerfulpatient.org or text EMPOWER to (833)213-6657.

Patient Profile: Alexis Chase, PhD

Patient Profile

Alexis Chase, PhD

“To be empowered you have to be open, to want to do it, and to accept where you are.” – Dr. Alexis Chase, An MPN Empowered Patient

Dr. Alexis Chase has had a pretty interesting life, but she doesn’t think that makes her unique. She says she thinks all women have interesting lives. Born congenitally blind in her right eye she was given the name Alexis Elizabeth Lucia Chase. “I’m very proud of my name,” she says explaining the origin. Alexis was the name of a doll her mother had as a girl, and it means protector of mankind. Elizabeth is a family name, and Lucia represents Saint Lucia, the patron saint of the blind. Her mother was a nurse and her father, who was the first to recognize she had a vision issue, had a degree in biology. She was very close with her parents who instilled in her a strong foundation in her Roman Catholic faith. While she was born in Connecticut, she spent most of her adult life in Georgia as a divorced mother who built a successful 27-year career in the prison corrections system. She worked her way up to warden and earned two PhDs, one in religious counseling and one in criminal justice and corrections. After her retirement she became an international advocate and consultant of gender and women’s rights issues that include vocational training, post-incarceration reintegration, and female prisoners with children. She has travelled as far as Afghanistan in her advocacy work, and she is also the proud nana to a cat named Nathan Edgar Chase. She’s done a lot, and much of what she’s accomplished, she’s done while living with cancer.

The first time she was diagnosed with cancer was in 1976. She was in the first trimester of a high-risk pregnancy when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her doctors thought it would be best to terminate the pregnancy, but she refused. She was determined to have the baby, her daughter, and as soon as she was born, Dr. Chase began treatment for her cancer, opting for an experimental drug that she says saved her life.

At the time, her parents, her desire to live for her daughter, and her strong faith gave her the support she needed. “They were right there with me,” she says of her parents who she is grateful to for her faith. “It’s my great equalizer. My rope of hope,” she says and adds that she can pull on her faith anytime and in any place. “You’ve got to believe in something greater than yourself because definitely we’re not it,” she says.

She’s had no recurrence of the ovarian cancer, but in 1996, during a regular wellness checkup, she was diagnosed with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), a group of blood cancers that affect the function of bone marrow and can cause a number of complications. In Dr. Chase’s case her MPNs includes iron deficiency, anemia, diseases of the blood and blood forming organs, and hypothyroidism. MPNs are chronic conditions that can transform into another blood cancer and can affect people at any age but are more common in older adults. MPNs are also progressive. Dr. Chase had no symptoms for the first four years after her diagnosis, and wondered if she’d been misdiagnosed, but in 2000 she says she just started to feel like something wasn’t right and that’s when her blood counts started to change. She began taking medication, but in 2020 it stopped working and her cancer team worked to find other medications and therapies to treat her.

MPNs are rare and she doesn’t know anyone else with the same diagnosis, but she says she has an incredible support network through her daughter, her friends that are like family, her church, and her cancer team. “They take great care of me,” she says, but she also takes great care of herself. In fact, she’s very meticulous about taking care of herself. She carefully takes her medications, and she makes herself a priority. She focuses a lot on her mental health and she stresses the importance of mental health for all cancer patients. She says she finds three ways to laugh at herself every day and she chooses six words every day that represent how she’s doing and to help her feel empowered. A recent example, “I feel surrounded by grace today”. Also, part of her self-care is taking the time to listen to calming and soothing sounds and inspirational messages and quotes.

She says it’s a blessing to have the cancer she has because she is able to handle it and it makes her take time to smell the roses. She’s handled it so well that during her career as a prison warden she never let on that she was sick. She managed to schedule her appointments around her work so no one would know. She didn’t want her illness to affect her career.

Always an empowered patient, she’s been known to walk out of a doctor’s office when a situation doesn’t feel right. “It’s important for people to feel like they are being heard and more importantly that they are being listened to.” She says “It’s also important to know what’s going on with your care. You know your body better than anybody.” Dr. Chase likes the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) because of the resources it provides to help others feel empowered in their own care. “I found PEN and love that I can access it anytime,” she says. She feels it’s important for patients to take charge of their own care plans. “To be empowered you have to be open, to want to do it, and to accept where you are,” she says. Her recommendation to other patients is to read, and comprehend, everything they can about their illness. “If you don’t understand it, you need to have someone explain it to you,” she says and also recommends keeping a journal. “We have to have something tangible. We can’t remember everything.”

While she continues to accomplish a great deal while living with cancer, it’s not always easy. “The chronic cancer fatigue, it will get me. I fight it because I feel like once I give in it would overtake me,” she says. She does experience shortness of breath and plans her days around her energy level. “It slows me down, but I don’t let it stop me. I push myself because I know the next day or the next day I won’t be able to.” Along with continuing her consulting and advocacy work, Dr. Chase loves to travel and hopes to go to Turkey to see the Virgin Mary’s house. “You never know what God has laid out for you,” she says. “I’m still here. I’ve been symptomatic for 20 years and I’m still here.”


Read more patient stories here.

Communicating About Cancer: A Brief Guide to Telling People Who Care

Getting a cancer diagnosis can easily be the most terrifying, heart-wrenching experiences one has in their lifetime. Everything from different treatment options (if you’re lucky), to financing, and maintaining quality of life suddenly are in full force front and center. It can be hard to know who to turn to if you’re not directed to a support group (of which there are many), and especially how to tell loved ones and co-workers. The choice is yours, of course, in whom you wish to tell and when – there is no right or wrong answer. (However, I and many others have found that having a caregiver to help manage appointments, billing, etc. can help).

Should you choose to tell others, here are some tips that I have read and/or heard from other cancer patients/survivors as well as some I have found personally helpful:

Kids:

  • It depends on the age – using simpler terms with younger kids (8 and under) may be more helpful, while older kids and teens can understand more detail. For example, saying that you’re sick and you’re getting the best care from a team of doctors who really want to help you get better
  • According to the American Cancer Society, children need to know the basics, including:
    • The name of the cancer
    • The specific body part(s) of where it is
    • How it’ll be treated
    • How their own lives will be affected
  • Think of a list of questions ahead of time that you think they may ask and jot down answers, such as how the cancer happened (that it’s not anyone’s fault), if it’s contagious, and/or if it’ll be fatal
  • Make sure that they know you are open to talking about it at any time. You can also perform check-ins with each other to monitor feelings

Family and friends:

  • Select a group of people, including immediate family and close friends
  • Divulge information only you feel comfortable sharing. Maybe it’s the basics, as mentioned above, or more detailed information
  • Prepare for different reactions, including sadness, anger, frustration, depression, anxiety, compassion, and support
  • Also prepare for people to not feel comfortable and feel as if they’re helpless. A cancer diagnosis is a heavy weight to bear, and not everyone will feel like the have the capacity to help as much as they want to
  • As the patient, tell them how you’re looking for support (ex. what are your needs during this time, including physical, emotional, mental). Guiding members of your support system to get your needs met may help them feel more at ease and able to help

Work:

  • Telling a supervisor/manager may be one of the hardest tasks for fear of discrimination
    • However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which covers employers with 15 ore more employees, prohibits discrimination based on:
      • Actual disability
      • A perceived history of disability
      • A misperception of current disability
      • History of disability
    • The ADA also:
      • Protects eligible cancer survivors from discrimination in the workplace
      • Requires eligible employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to allow employees to function properly on the job
      • Ensure that employers must treat all employees equally
    • The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) also gives you the right to take time off due to illness without losing your job
      • However, an employee must have worked for his or her employer for at least 12 months, including at least 1,250 hours during the most recent 12 months in order to qualify. The law applies to workers at all government agencies and schools nationwide as well as those at private companies with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius
    • The Federal Rehabilitation Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because they have cancer
      • However, this act applies only to employees of the federal government, as well as private and public employers who receive public funds

Sources:

How Can MPN Patients Amplify Their Voice?

How Can MPN Patients Amplify Their Voice? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

MPN Network Managers Jeff Bushnell and Summer Golden, a husband and wife team, share how they cope with a diagnosis of myelofibrosis. Both highlight the importance of patients and care partners amplifying their voice as part of the coping process.

F Words in Rare Disease

A dad I know recently posted a photo and shared his excitement on Twitter about a new set up for his bike with a trailer for his son. Its overall purpose being an opportunity to do more stuff together as a family. I wholeheartedly shared in his excitement as I too had been putting money aside to find more opportunities for my own family to get outdoors more. Both of us are parents of children who were born with a rare diagnosis. Our kids have different rare diagnoses, but like all families we are eager to connect with the greater world around us and share it with our kids however we can.

My own kiddo is going to be thirteen this year, and we are at a turning point in the discussion of overall health. We are off-book and off script as there’s nothing that clinically describes this age range for his specific diagnosis. Anecdotally, he seems to be following his own trajectory for some inexplicable reason deviating from other children I know with this diagnosis. I’m at the hospital more professionally than I am as mom of a patient which to some audiences the reaction is, “Yay! Your family gets a break! So everything is fine now, right?”. The reaction from fellow parents of palliative patients is, “I’m so sorry”, because they realize the fight is over. That life is going to do whatever it is its going to do. The hospital is still there if you need them, but your frequent family vacation time at “Club Med” is to be replaced with a new family dynamic and new identity as take a go at life more on your own.

Health care is quickly deviating from textbook, generalized care to something highly individualized. This in theory is a great concept but is extraordinarily multifaceted in its impact on patients affected by rare disease. As someone who manages a support group of over 800 patients and caregivers from my home province, I find a deep desire to ask in some capacity whether we are prepared for the pace of advancement. A long-term goal I have in mind is to create a biopsychosocial assessment of the needs of families. For now, I can say for as much new information as I bring to the proverbial table, it’s so often met with, “How do I fit this into my complex world?”.

I hesitate to use the term ‘finding balance’ at all, because if there’s one thing I think many of us rare patients and families experience is more of a need to manage random health chaos. The status of my own family can shift on a dime and you have to learn to be very much ok with that because you have no other choice than to.

So how does one even begin to manage understanding how to frame your life and all the decisions you have to make? For a little over four years, I’ve been working as a parent researcher and engagement facilitator with a focus on the subject of childhood disability. One concept we often speak on is the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Functioning, Disability Health. A simplified version of a very technical document is called “The F Words in Childhood Disability”. Now these are concepts that I wish to argue merit for as a way to create form to thoughts and efforts that you are probably doing already. At the same time, it can become very validating and empowering to realize that current evidence points to the fact that you are already on the right track. These are ideas upon which a potential framework can be created in your own mind as to goals that can be accomplished, or a way to weigh decisions that need to be made. We are often so focused on the burdens of disease, that we need a compass of sorts to point us back to the idea that life is happening around us and time can often be a precious commodity. They are six words that reflect the story that’s unique to you or your family and nobody else.

Function

There is often a need to perform tasks in ways unique to their own abilities. If independence in some areas can be fostered, we need to be able to honor that.

Family

Family isn’t always about people you are genetically related to. People react to the idea of illness very differently and in some cases, you need to seek community and “family” elsewhere. Regardless, the people in your life that you surround yourself with are people that are important to you. It’s important to listen to them as they know you best.

Fitness

As a post-cancer “spoonie” myself, I often bristle a bit on this subject. Between my own struggles with energy and the physical impact of caregiving, I’ve found it difficult to find the energy to be healthy. However, your story isn’t my story and in reality it can be intensely difficult to find ways to be healthy. In the area of rare disease, I think health becomes a broader term by definition: overall health takes on many forms be it mental or physical health. We often term health as some sort of fitness guru Instagram aspiration, but sometimes overall improved health comes from even the tiniest of steps and even the little efforts deserve to be celebrated in a huge fashion.

Friends

Existing around peers can take on many forms, and in order to do so sometimes we need to be brave and reach out to others for more accessible ways to connect with friends. What can’t be ignored is a human being’s overall need to connect with other people as we learn and grow together.

Fun

In a world that can be taken up so much with appointments and treatments, its so important to stop every now and then and have fun, be silly, briefly escape the world and just plain live. Fun can take on so many different things.

Future

So much definition of future is often left to the financial planners of the world in regards to careers, academics and whatnot. Sometimes the future is only planning ahead 15 minutes at a time or a week from now. As hokey as it sounds, with age I’ve begun to see the value and emotional weight the phrase “one day at a time” holds in my life. I’ve been asked more times than I can count as to how I picture my family’s future. My response remains that I really am not gifted with that luxury, ask me what I’m working on for tomorrow.

I have seen these terms be threaded through my life in so many ways. Sometimes you are only focusing on one F word at a time and there’s no judgement in that at all. I like any other mom am someone who struggles with whether or not I’m doing a good job. I think the gauge by which I measure this is probably unique to my own personal story but I know that I am not alone in this feeling. I feel though with the F words, I have a more confident platform to stand on not to be his voice but to be his microphone. There’s so much I can’t control in life but as his mom I want to help him own every second as his life to live. So in celebration of birthday number 13, we’re taking “fun” as our next goal and bought a bike trailer too! I know he’ll love it.

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.

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.


2020 Update: Patient Empowerment Revisited: What Does It Truly Mean To Patients?

 

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MPN Patient Story: Ruth Gerwin

My journey began in 1999 when I was diagnosed with Essential Thrombocythemia (ET). All I took was a baby aspirin, even then my platelets soared to over 1 million.

In November 2004, I had a bad cold and had this aching on my left side. It was discovered my spleen was enlarged and I had a bone marrow biopsy. I was at that time diagnosed with Myelofibrosis (MF). I went to see Dr. Richard Silver in New York and he put me on Interferon. I saw him for 5 years and then transferred to Cleveland Clinic as my insurance company was making it harder and harder for Dr. Silver to be paid. There I was under the very capable care of  Dr. Ramon Tui. It was under his care that I did a trial for Jakafi. It only helped the spleen size for a couple of months, but it has kept some of the other side effects of the disease at bay. I still take 20 mg. twice daily. Also, in 2014 I had a double mastectomy.

In the spring of 2017, I was so horribly uncomfortable because by this time I looked 9 months pregnant with my spleen. I also had swollen legs and feet. I could hardly walk. I made a decision at that time to radiate the spleen to give me some relief. I was supposed to receive 10 treatments, but was stopped at 7 because my blood counts bottomed out. Hmg 6.0, Pl 5, WBC 0.8. I started with transfusions twice weekly of one platelet and two blood. I did this for several weeks and developed a horrible headache. I stopped the transfusions and my Dr. said to go home and call Hospice. He thought I had 2 weeks to 2 months to live. I was really sick, but as my spleen began to recover, my counts went up. By the fall of 2017, I was basically back to normal with the blood counts and, of course, out of Hospice. My family think I’m a miracle. But, the spleen, by December 2017 was becoming very uncomfortable again and I started radiation again January, 2018. This time I had 4 treatments and had to stop because of my blood dropping.

It has been suggested to me by two doctors to have my spleen removed and have a bone marrow transplant. But, I have read about this procedure and I know I wouldn’t survive as I am very sensitive to most of the medications they would have to give me. My current hematologist is looking for a trial I can do, but my bone marrow is nothing but fatty tissue. I have nothing there…not even fibrosis. I keep telling them my spleen is doing it all, but they won’t believe me. With no bone marrow tissue, I can’t do a trial. So, I don’t know what they are going to do with me. Anyone else have this problem? I’d love to hear what you are doing.

I know the Lord has a good plan for me and I just have to wait and see what it is. He is the “great physician”!  I’m just not real patient. I haven’t felt really well for a long time.

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.