21 min

A Life and Death in Haiku Cancer Stories: The Art of Oncology

    • Science

"A Life and a Death in Haiku," by J. Russell Hoverman: a brother shares haikus and photos dear to his family around his brother's end-of-life care.
 
TRANSCRIPT
A Life and a Death in Haiku, by John John Russell Hoverman, MD, PhD (10.1200/JCO.21.02835)
 
My brother, Jim, was diagnosed at age 73 years with colon cancer metastatic to the liver, lymph nodes, and lungs. He and his wife were avid hikers and after retirement had hoped to visit as many national parks as possible. Big Bend National Park in Texas, along the Rio Grande River bordering Mexico, at over 800,000 acres, is one of the largest and least-visited parks in the country. The park has vast expanses of desert and high mountain islands, with some peaks over 6,000 feet. We had hoped to have Jim visit us in 2020, but both cancer and COVID-19 interfered until this past spring when we were finally able to arrange a trip to the park. It had been a few years since I had last seen Jim at our most recent family wedding. When he arrived in Austin, he appeared gaunt and frail. He had lost his taste, and many foods burned his mouth. He had lost weight and was weaker. He barely felt his feet. He struggled to just get through the day. Even so, he hiked up to a promontory overlooking the Rio Grande one day and into a canyon the next and seemed to get stronger as the week went on (Figs 1 and 2).
 
While in Big Bend, we talked about how he wanted to be remembered. Neither of our parents left tangible markers of their deaths. There were no gravesites, only scattered ashes in places without names. We discussed having a marker, a plaque, a touchstone, or maybe a bench at a favorite park, a place that could be visited by family and friends. This loss of continuity is likely a result of our culture—urbanization and the fragmentation of families. This is in contrast to The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) celebrated in Mexico and much of the American Southwest, where families decorate cemeteries and have annual gatherings to remember deceased relatives and friends. We forget, or perhaps never knew, how important this can be.
 
As an oncologist, I saw the wide variety of ways in which people died. A few years after I finished training, I joined a practice in a small town in Oregon with a large Mennonite community. One of my first patients was a church member with metastatic ovarian cancer that was no longer responsive to treatment. She required near constant attention for pain control, and the nursing facility associated with the Mennonite Church, primarily staffed by fellow church members, was her best option. My patient knew all her caregivers, and they knew her. It was as if she was receiving terminal care for her cancer by her sisters. This may have been the first time I attended the death of a patient outside of a hospital. Given that experience, I became an ardent supporter of hospice organizations, many of which were just starting. I knew that Jim was not far from the end of his life and that he wanted to be able to make his own choices, even to the point of getting it over with. We both also knew the impact of sudden, unforeseen, untimely deaths in our own family. I had hoped that Jim could be comfortable and able to participate with us until the very end. This most likely meant involving hospice care.
 
By summer, less than a year after his diagnosis, chemotherapy no longer controlled his disease, and there were no treatment options available. His oncologist offered a menu of possible treatments including radionuclide embolization of two liver lesions and radiation treatment of lung lesions. As Jim’s discomfort was primarily in the region of his largest liver lesion, he and his wife decided to pursue the liver embolization for pain relief, but while recovering from his chemotherapy, Jim lost more weight and became weaker.
At the time of the scheduled procedure, the interventional radiologist discussed his concern that Jim’s
change in status would make

"A Life and a Death in Haiku," by J. Russell Hoverman: a brother shares haikus and photos dear to his family around his brother's end-of-life care.
 
TRANSCRIPT
A Life and a Death in Haiku, by John John Russell Hoverman, MD, PhD (10.1200/JCO.21.02835)
 
My brother, Jim, was diagnosed at age 73 years with colon cancer metastatic to the liver, lymph nodes, and lungs. He and his wife were avid hikers and after retirement had hoped to visit as many national parks as possible. Big Bend National Park in Texas, along the Rio Grande River bordering Mexico, at over 800,000 acres, is one of the largest and least-visited parks in the country. The park has vast expanses of desert and high mountain islands, with some peaks over 6,000 feet. We had hoped to have Jim visit us in 2020, but both cancer and COVID-19 interfered until this past spring when we were finally able to arrange a trip to the park. It had been a few years since I had last seen Jim at our most recent family wedding. When he arrived in Austin, he appeared gaunt and frail. He had lost his taste, and many foods burned his mouth. He had lost weight and was weaker. He barely felt his feet. He struggled to just get through the day. Even so, he hiked up to a promontory overlooking the Rio Grande one day and into a canyon the next and seemed to get stronger as the week went on (Figs 1 and 2).
 
While in Big Bend, we talked about how he wanted to be remembered. Neither of our parents left tangible markers of their deaths. There were no gravesites, only scattered ashes in places without names. We discussed having a marker, a plaque, a touchstone, or maybe a bench at a favorite park, a place that could be visited by family and friends. This loss of continuity is likely a result of our culture—urbanization and the fragmentation of families. This is in contrast to The Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) celebrated in Mexico and much of the American Southwest, where families decorate cemeteries and have annual gatherings to remember deceased relatives and friends. We forget, or perhaps never knew, how important this can be.
 
As an oncologist, I saw the wide variety of ways in which people died. A few years after I finished training, I joined a practice in a small town in Oregon with a large Mennonite community. One of my first patients was a church member with metastatic ovarian cancer that was no longer responsive to treatment. She required near constant attention for pain control, and the nursing facility associated with the Mennonite Church, primarily staffed by fellow church members, was her best option. My patient knew all her caregivers, and they knew her. It was as if she was receiving terminal care for her cancer by her sisters. This may have been the first time I attended the death of a patient outside of a hospital. Given that experience, I became an ardent supporter of hospice organizations, many of which were just starting. I knew that Jim was not far from the end of his life and that he wanted to be able to make his own choices, even to the point of getting it over with. We both also knew the impact of sudden, unforeseen, untimely deaths in our own family. I had hoped that Jim could be comfortable and able to participate with us until the very end. This most likely meant involving hospice care.
 
By summer, less than a year after his diagnosis, chemotherapy no longer controlled his disease, and there were no treatment options available. His oncologist offered a menu of possible treatments including radionuclide embolization of two liver lesions and radiation treatment of lung lesions. As Jim’s discomfort was primarily in the region of his largest liver lesion, he and his wife decided to pursue the liver embolization for pain relief, but while recovering from his chemotherapy, Jim lost more weight and became weaker.
At the time of the scheduled procedure, the interventional radiologist discussed his concern that Jim’s
change in status would make

21 min

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