William Tseng, MD is an associate professor of surgery at the University of Southern California, Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles and member of the board of directors at the Sarcoma Alliance.
For the patient with a rare cancer, such as sarcoma, finding hope can be especially problematic, writes a cancer surgeon. Making patients hopeful, he writes, about their medical journey is as important as the medical components of treatment.
I am a true believer in giving patients with cancer hope.
This can be extremely challenging when dealing with a rare cancer called sarcoma. In comparison to more common cancers, very little is known about sarcoma. These tumors can develop anywhere in the body – mostly in the limbs, but sometimes on the trunk or deep within the abdomen (also known as the retroperitoneum). To make things even more confusing, there are many different subtypes of sarcoma, the understanding of which is vitally important for appropriate treatment.
For the patient with sarcoma, finding hope can be especially problematic when local doctors are unfamiliar with this rare disease. Yet, making patients hopeful about their medical journey is as important as all the medical components of treatment.
For over a decade, I have been a cancer surgeon dedicated to battling sarcoma. Each day I see and talk with patients from all over the country with this disease. I admit I have become somewhat obsessed with sarcoma from fighting it on behalf of my patients and seeing what it can do to people. In addition to patient care, I am actively engaged in research on sarcoma. I collaborate with the few colleagues dedicated to this disease around the world, with the hope of someday finding a cure. We discuss sarcoma – a lot. We write about sarcoma – a lot – in medical literature to advance the field and for the general public to increase awareness.
Until a cure is found, hope is a very important part of the fight against sarcoma. This is especially so for those patients with sarcoma deemed inoperable or "unresectable" by other surgeons, sometimes at other reputable hospitals. There is no textbook answer for this rare cancer and each patient is different. So, with thorough explanation and mutual understanding from my patients, I offer my patients with sarcoma hope.
Hope can mean that perhaps after doing radiation or drug therapy first, we move forward with surgery. Hope can mean that even though it may be the fourth surgery for retroperitoneal sarcoma, we still coordinate with multiple surgical teams in preparation for anything, with the same vigor as the first surgery. Hope means for an extensive sarcoma of the upper arm that is still functional, we spend eight hours trying to save it, recognizing that amputation would be a quicker and easier option. And above all, hope means recognizing that beyond the sarcoma, patients are human beings with families and friends who are committed to conquering this “beast!”
At the end of the day, whether it’s recognizing a “curious” trend in patients that could lead to a novel treatment approach, a completely and safely removed tumor sitting on the operating room back table, or simply a patient with sarcoma who now has calm and clarity about what to expect moving forward – I am a strong believer in giving patients hope.
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