What is the best way to explain disease progression to myeloproliferative neoplasm patients? MPN experts Dr. Gabriela Hobbs and Natasha Johnson share advice on how they work with patients and families to clearly explain disease progression.
Dr. Gabriela Hobbs is a hematology-oncology physician specializing in the care of patients with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPN), chronic myeloid leukemia, and leukemia. Dr. Hobbs serves as clinical director of the adult leukemia service at Massachusetts General Hospital and is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
Natasha Johnson, is an Advanced Oncology Nurse Practitioner at Moffitt Cancer Center, where she cares for people living with MPNs with kindness, patience, and humanity. Natasha also speaks at conferences to educate other healthcare professionals about MPN care, research, and treatment.
Nicole Rochester, MD:
I wanted to shift again and start to talk about specifically disease progression. And we know that that is, unfortunately, something that is an important element of MPNs. And so as we talk to fellow MPN specialists, what are you all’s recommendations for how they can best explain disease progression to patients? Are there any specific languaging or specific tactics that you all use, and even things that maybe you shouldn’t say as you are sharing information about disease progression? Either one of you, feel free to go first.
Gabriela Hobbs, MD:
So disease progression, I think is a really challenging topic, because on the one hand, I think it’s really important to educate patients. It’s really important for patients to know that that is a possibility, that it is something that can happen. It’s really challenging to have a patient that has lived with this disease for a long time, hardly even knows the name of that disease. Maybe they were seen elsewhere, etcetera, and then all of a sudden, something’s going wrong and they just weren’t prepared for that. But I feel like that really does need to be balanced by the fact that, thankfully, progression happens infrequently. And so you also…going back to what we were saying before, you want to help a patient to be able to live well with these diseases and not be defined by those diseases. And so one of the things that I try to do with patients is, especially during that initial visit, I spend some time explaining to them what the disease is, that it can progress to myelofibrosis, that it can progress to leukemia. But then I also try to reassure them as much as possible that this is an infrequent event, that the reason why we follow patients in-clinic is so that we can start to notice if there’s disease progression, that it usually happens gradually.
And then I try to say, “You have this information. We can’t necessarily change that at this moment, there are maybe some tools that we can use in the future, but try to put that information in a box in your brain, put the key, put it away, try not to think about that every day when you’re outside of here. Definitely okay to open that back up when you’re with me in the room. If you want to get those anxieties out, that’s fine, but let’s really try to make sure that that’s in the back and not at the forefront of our thoughts.” And kind of going back to one of the things we were discussing before about what the patient thinks is most important, what the clinician thinks is most important. If you ask patients what are they most concerned about with their MPN, oftentimes that response is, “Is my disease going to progress?” And so I think acknowledging that and talking about that is important, but then also reminding patients that over time, they need to, hopefully with your help, or maybe they need additional assistance with therapists or social workers, etcetera, let’s find a way to put that away so that it’s not really at the forefront of our thoughts every single day, because that also ends up being not productive.
Nicole Rochester, MD:
I love that approach, of providing the education, but also that balance that you talked about, Dr. Hobbs. I love the idea of putting it away, putting it in a box [chuckle] and locking it, and then opening it back up when you’re in the safety with your healthcare provider. That’s beautiful.
Do you have anything to add to that, Ms. Johnson?
I completely agree. Your example there of putting it in the box, I’m going to use that in clinic. [laughter] I think it’s a great visual for patients. Because like you said, they’re very scared, and it can control them and take over, and we don’t want the disease to take over their life. Still live. Enjoy.