You were just diagnosed with cancer. Your doctor says you need surgery, chemo, and radiation. Well-meaning friends are sending you information about cannabis oil, dandelion root, turmeric, etc. You need to make a treatment decision without much time for research. Possibly for the first time in your life, you’re facing an actual life-or-death decision. Now is the time to know what questions to ask.
Something I learned from being diagnosed with cancer is this: We don’t know what we don’t know, therefore we don’t know what questions to ask. If fact, we don’t always know when a question exists! And this is dangerous.
Example: I read that cinnamon has many health benefits but it never occurred to me to ask which type of cinnamon. I didn’t know this was a question because I didn’t know there was more than one type! I bought organic cinnamon and guess what? It’s not the healthy kind from the studies, in fact, the cinnamon that I bought has studies showing it’s not super great for the liver. The questions you don’t know to ask, are the ones you need to ask!
“Do not seek so much to find the answer as much as to understand the question better” ~Fortune cookie wisdom
So I’m sharing with you, a question that you might not know that you can ask your doctor — but you should.
Ask your doctor what the statistical chance of a recurrence is “specific to your pathology” for each treatment option you’re considering.
If your doctor recommends “surgery, chemo, radiation” — there’s still going to be a statistical margin of recurrence. In other words – no matter what you do, there’s a chance it won’t work, and if you do nothing, there’s a chance you’ll be fine until your 99. And just to complicate it more — the treatment has side-effects that, among other things, lowers your immunity whether or not it works. So you really ought to know your odds going in.
Since anything you choose is a bit of a gamble, learn what your odds are.
Your doctor will tell you the odds, but don’t assume it’s customized. It might be the general “one-size-fits-all” odds of recurrence and survival. However, if you ask, he/she can tell you what the chance of recurrance is “specific to your pathology.”
Make sure you see a chart, and ask if they input your specifications.
There are websites for doctors where they can input your age, gender, and exact pathology (type of cancer grade, stage, hormone positive/negative, etc.). This provides the odds “specific to you” of a recurrence for each treatment option. My oncologist brought up a chart and we compared the % of recurrence “specific to me” for the following treatment options:
1. Do everything; surgery, chemo, and radiation
2. Only surgery
3. Only surgery and chemo
4. Only surgery and radiation
5. Do nothing
Unfortunately, alternative/natural treatments are not well studied, so doctors cannot provide much information about how things like “going vegan” or “using cannabis oil”, etc., will effect your odds.
When I asked my doctor to check statistics specific to me – he was surprised and it changed my treatment plan!
One doctor told me I needed 12 infusions. Another told me 4 infusions. (If I didn’t get a second-opinion, I would not have known 4 infusions was an option!). My oncologist was encouraging me to have 8 infusions. I pushed back because I’d been told 4 by another doctor — so he looked it up and we compared my getting 8 rounds of chemo vs 4 and found there was a 1.4% statistical advantage with 8. (That’s DOUBLE the chemo for an additional 1.4% benefit). He was surprised it was that low and agreed that 4 rounds would be ok for me. Of course, I didn’t want any chemo, but my oncologist showed me there was over a 20% statistical advantage (I cannot recall the exact number now but it was in the mid-20s) to 4 rounds of chemo compared to none. Equipped with this information, I chose 4 rounds.
Don’t assume your doctor will check the statistics “specific to you” unless you ask.
And don’t let the way the statistics are presented fool you.
Example: A typical treatment for estrogen positive breast cancer (after surgery, chemo, and radiation) is to take a chemo pill, like Tamoxifen, once a day for 5 years. I asked my oncologist what the statistics were for me, for taking Tamoxifen vs not taking it. There was a 5% advantage for me to take it. 5% means that for 100 women (with the same pathology) — 5 more will have a recurrence when not taking it compared to taking it. So I weighed my chance of maybe being one of those five women against definitely taking the pill everyday for five years.*
I also weighed into my decision other lifestyle changes that are likely closing that small gap — even if there is no data for it.
But there IS data for all the typical treatments. Before doing whatever the doctor says — make them check the data specific to you. Because when it comes to cancer, there are serious risks involved, both from the disease AND from the treatment. You’ll hopefully find more peace in knowing what the percentage of benefit is for you before making your decision.
*The statistics my oncologist provided for me, were based on cases of women with my exact pathology. It is important to note that I do not have the BRCA gene. Statistics for the odds of recurrence will be different depending on factors like genetics and pathology.