Without hope, cancer is terrifying

By Chris Slone - [email protected]

Editor’s note — This is part two of a three-part series. Part one ran in Tuesday’s edition of the Daily Times. Part three will run in Thursday’s edition.

“We are in the business of hope.”

Dr. Jeremiah Martin spent a year at Duke University School of Medicine, learning minimally invasive lung-cancer surgery. But perhaps one of the most important lessons Martin learned during his year stint in North Carolina was more of a philosophical one.

One of Martin’s mentors was a thoracic surgeon at Duke who pioneered the minimally invasive lung-cancer procedures. Despite being an innovator in cutting-edge surgery, Dr. Thomas D’Amico had crafted his practice to suit his patients’ needs, which is something Martin admired.

“When you’re taking care of cancer patients, it’s a terrifying process,” Martin said. “It’s not just like I’m showing up for an appendix or a hernia. It’s the whole idea of dealing with cancer. He’s somebody, just the way he treats patients, he really cares about the individual and as perfected an operation to minimize the impact on them, so they can get back on their feet as quickly as possible.

“That’s what inspired my daily practice, to have that efficient practice where your taking care of the patient, taking care of their individual needs and getting them back on their feet as quickly as possible.”

According to Martin, lung cancer is different from other diseases as there are no signs or symptoms. Lung cancer is curable if it’s caught early enough. Martin stressed the importance of routine lung-cancer screenings to avoid the same scenario that he has seen play out several times in the past.

An individual, who by all accounts is perfectly healthy, decides to get screened after family pressure or after a lengthy avoidance.

“So, they get their CT scan done and all of the sudden, ‘Yesterday, I was feeling fine. Today, I’m still feeling fine, but oh my gosh, there is a spot on my lung and I don’t know what it is,’” Martin said.

After a two or three-week process, and several additional tests, the dreaded diagnoses comes back and all of the sudden, that individual has lung cancer.

Martin said there is also a stigma associated with lung cancer, which ties into the aforementioned scenario. Typically, lung cancer is not detected in time, so the average survival rate is approximately one to two years.

“Because it’s not picked up early, people think when they get it, they’re finished,” Martin said. “Less than 20 percent of people make it to five years. It’s the No. 1 cancer killer, but that the same time, it’s a cancer we don’t really talk about. And I don’t know if it’s because people think, ‘Oh, I’ve done it to myself because I’ve smoked cigarettes.’

“And then there is this stigma associated with it as well, so because of that, it’s not talked about a lot. There’s not a lot of awareness. It doesn’t get picked up in time and everybody knows somebody who’s had lung cancer. And it has usually not ended well.”

For patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer, Martin said part of the battle is changing the narrative. For individuals who were screened properly and the diagnoses was discovered in time, they still have a tendency to have a gloomy outlook, which can be a challenge in itself.

“In the back of their minds, they think, ‘I’m going to end up like uncle Joe,’ or whoever it was that went through this horrible course of chemo and radiation, and barely made it a year,” Martin said. “But then we have to bring them around to the idea that it’s a small module, we can do a minimally-invasive surgery and we can get them out of the hospital in three days.”

Three to six months later, that patient is cancer free and has a new lease on life.

“It’s probably the most rewarding part of my job,” Martin said. “It really changes their lives. Of course, it really makes me feel good when those patients don’t ever smoke again. There’s a few that go back to it, but the vast majority don’t. It’s pretty amazing.”

Cancer is a completely different disease — it’s the fear of the unknown. With a cardiac issue, a patient feels chest pain, they call 911. However, with cancer, no one ever knows when or if they’ll suffer from the disease. Martin said, as a cancer doctor, part of his job of treating cancer patients is to never let them give up.

“A really important part of my job, even when it seems hopeless, is to try to instill that sense of hope, so that the patients will make the most of everyday that they have and from a treatment perspective, participate in all of their treatments,” Martin said. “’We are in the business of hope,’ is really important for any cancer doctor.

“But as far as how I feel about it, by the end of the day, I’m usually exhausted. Clinic days, I go home and just pass out because it just really takes an emotional toll. Sometimes, it’s more stressful than the surgery itself, just helping a patient go through that process.”

By Chris Slone

[email protected]

Reach Chris Slone at 740-353-3101, ext 1927, or on Twitter @crslone.

Reach Chris Slone at 740-353-3101, ext 1927, or on Twitter @crslone.