When treating cancer, sometimes the treatment decisions are straightforward and unambiguous. For example, surgery is the treatment of choice for an early, uncomplicated tongue cancer. However, many times, the recommendation for cancer treatment is not straightforward and requires combination treatment – one or more of surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.
… the recommendation for cancer treatment is not straightforward
As a head and neck cancer surgeon, I work with a team to make these treatment decisions, and usually team consensus is achieved. However, when we are faced with the choice of multiple treatments that all have the same chance of cure available, it seems to result in a never ending discussion amongst our team.
Take for example an advanced tonsil cancer. These cancers can sometimes be removed first with surgery, a process which removes both the primary cancer and the lymph nodes in the neck. Then, depending on the pathology results, patients may need radiation treatment, chemoradiation or sometimes no further treatment at all. Meanwhile, chemoradiation alone, and no surgery, is an excellent option. Whether the patient receives surgery or no surgery, the chance of cure is pretty much the same. However, based on the need for additional treatment after surgery, the patient may have better, equivalent, or worse function than chemoradiation alone.
How then can a patient make a decision with imperfect data? I wish I could help my patients better with these complex decisions. Most patients will make this decision only once in their lives. With the increased emphasis on patient autonomy, there is sometimes a feeling to just “present the options and let the patient decide.”
However, when a group of smart experienced doctors who all treat the same cancer, cannot reach an agreement, how is a patient with no experience expected to make the right decision? There is not enough time to explain to patients the observations of hundreds of such decisions and their thousands of outcomes. Some patients are so overwhelmed by the decision, that they just want someone to tell them what to do. Others have so many questions and concerns that they get lost in the details and paralyzed by the process. I don’t know the right answer for such patients.
Unfortunately, there is no option but to choose a treatment strategy and move forward. We all carry the hope that one day, with more research and better understanding, such complex decisions for the treatment of cancer, will become the easy ones.