The best gift of all: When the sickest patients feel better

Ex-marines are some of the toughest patients I ever see, when it comes to dealing with pain from cancer.  And career ex-Marines have the market cornered on toughness.

Take for example, an elderly friend in Kansas who woke up one morning with severe upper back pain, feeling faint, and decided as was his Marine Corps habit that a cold shower would be “just the thing.”   The cold shower likely saved his life, since he was quite hypothermic when the ambulance arrived to take him to emergency surgery for his dissecting aortic aneurysm.  Three months ago when I saw a new patient, a seventy year old former Marine, shifting uncomfortably from his chair to his feet and back to his chair, grimacing with pain, I knew it was serious.

This patient had undergone a radical cystectomy for bladder cancer eighteen months prior.  In layman’s terms, his bladder had been removed and a portion of his bowel refashioned into a conduit to carry the urine outside his body into a bag.  This he bore with no complaint.  After all, Marines adjust.

But a year later he began to have severe low back pain.  His physicians treated him in the usual prescribed manner — physical therapy and anti-inflammatory drugs.  When his pain grew progressively worse, they ordered an MRI of his lumbar spine which was negative, and he was prescribed narcotics.  Unfortunately, when you order an MRI of the lumbar spine, you do not routinely get views of the pelvis.

Finally, he presented to the emergency room with intractable pain and a pelvic x-ray was obtained.  Much to the shock of the ER crew, half of his sacrum was gone, destroyed by recurrent bladder cancer that had invaded bone.  That’s when he was referred to me.

I treated this patient with intensity modulated radiation therapy, in order to deliver the highest dose possible while sparing as much bowel as possible.  He had a very difficult course of treatment — his appetite was poor and he lost twenty pounds; he developed a urinary tract infection which landed him in the hospital; he had diarrhea from the radiation and the chemotherapy which was given along with it; and finally he developed moist desquamation of the skin just over the palpable mass in the right sacrum.

He finished his therapy, but just barely.  I wasn’t sure I would see him again, but I didn’t want his wife to know that I had little faith, so we scheduled him for a six week follow up.

This was a tough week at work.  On Tuesday one of my breast cancer patients was diagnosed with a brain metastasis at age 37, and another breast cancer patient, a lovely elderly woman, suffered a pathologic fracture of her hip from a bone metastasis.

By yesterday, I was strongly contemplating calling in sick when I wasn’t for the first time in my life.  After all, today was my sixtieth birthday and I had had quite enough of sadness for one week.  But I didn’t — I came to work this morning to a fully booked schedule of follow ups and my ex-Marine was my last patient of the day. I was pretty certain he would be a no-show.  I should have known better.

The man that I had known previously in a wheelchair, disoriented from his pain medications, came in with a spring in his step, color in his cheeks and his wife and sister in law in tow.  He gave me a huge bear hug, and proudly unveiled his behind to show me how nicely his skin had healed. He told me that he was nearly completely off of his pain medicines, and that he felt so much better that last night he had shot a game of pool. He said he was looking forward to Christmas, and to a better year next year.  He told me that the medical oncologist had ordered a follow up MRI of the pelvis, but he was going to wait until after the first of the year — he knew that his respite from pain was a gift horse whose mouth did not need an examination.

I got some very nice birthday presents this year and I appreciate each and every one of them.  But sometimes, for the doctor, the best present of all is seeing her sickest patients feel better.  Happy birthday to me!

Miranda Fielding is a radiation oncologist who blogs at The Crab Diaries.

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  • Rob Burnside

    “Guts” are good. “Brains” are good, too. Guts and Brains together will take the hill almost every time. Hu-rah! Dr. Fielding.

  • DoubtfulGuest

    It made my day to read this, Dr. Fielding. Happy Birthday!

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