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With Cancer, Every Patient is Unique

By Richard Frank, MD

I have practiced oncology for nearly twenty years and met thousands of cancer patients. I have blogged in this space for just a short period of time but have heard from hundreds of you. If there is anything I have learned about cancer, it is that every patient is unique. By this I mean that no two individuals diagnosed with cancer will experience the disease in the same way.

First of all, every individual is unique in appearance, behavior and genetic makeup. So it makes sense that medications and diseases affect us in unique ways. One person may have no side effects from an antibiotic, whereas another may develop a rash from it. Multiple sclerosis can affect some individuals only once in their lifetime, whereas others may become debilitated by repeated attacks on the nervous system.

For any specific stage and type of cancer, no two individuals can experience the disease in exactly the same way because their bodies and minds are unique. What this means in the everyday world of oncology is that some individuals may live a long time with a type of cancer that causes devastating effects in others.  This is why I often tell patients not to believe everything they hear from those who try to be helpful but are actually giving misleading and often discouraging advice about cancer or its treatment.

I believe so strongly in the individualized experience of cancer that I devoted an entire section to it in my book. I also wrote about this phenomenon for other oncologists in an article published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology entitled, “The Hardest Job in Medicine”. In this article, I describe how a patient whom I first met when he was at death’s door from an incurable cancer ended up living several years with an excellent quality of life.

What does this mean for the person diagnosed with cancer? First, understand the diagnosis, the extent of the cancer (stage), the recommended treatments and the prognosis. A cancer prognosis involves estimating the chances for cure, and if a cure is not possible, then the estimated lifespan given the available therapies. If the prognosis is short, do not immediately despair. Explore all your options, including promising clinical trials. Above all, take hope from the fact that cancer is a unique experience to each affected individual and no one can absolutely predict the future; it may be much brighter than you ever imagined.

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