Several decades ago, a new patient came to my office with her family. She was elderly, in good health, spoke no English, and her extended family translated for her. Their request: “Don’t tell her that she has cancer.” Sharing her diagnosis with her would cause too much stress, they said. Their mother would not be able to tolerate the bad news, they said. She would “give up.”
I asked her (through her family and an interpreter) how much she wanted to know about what was going on, or would she prefer I confine my remarks to her family? It turns out that she did want to know her diagnosis and prognosis, and after a thorough discussion in front of her family about her treatment options, she decided she did not want to proceed with additional therapy. She wanted to focus on quality of life. I did not get the impression that this is what her family would have opted for.
The patient’s voice can take multiple directions, such as making informed decisions about their own care. When empowered, patients can and will express their wants, needs, feelings, and priorities to their providers, and they’ll participate in directing their own care. There is a growing body of evidence that shows patients who are more engaged and share decision-making with their health care professionals have better health outcomes and care experiences. Engaged patients feel more empowered and are more motivated to take action. They’re also more likely to follow treatment plans, take their medications, and heed their provider’s recommendations. By virtue of better treatments for lung cancer, many patients are living longer and better lives. Some of these patients even become “experts” on their own care, often bringing questions about research and clinical trials to the attention of their providers.
The patient’s voice in research and advocacy
The patient’s perspective is also key to a meaningful, successful clinical research project. Rather than being carried out to, about, or for the patient, patient involvement means research being carried out with or by patients. A patient and researcher may have different research goals. For example, patients may value being able to work, be with family, and live without pain, whereas a clinical researcher’s goal may be inducing responses. Patient involvement is important in both laboratory research and clinical research. The best-designed projects involve patient advocates from the beginning of the project to help make research relevant and meaningful to patients and include these perspectives through project completion.
More and more pharmaceutical companies are actively involving patients at all levels of protocol development, including protocol design and selection of relevant outcomes to patients. Benefits of engaging patients as partners in research include inclusion of real-world data, increased study enrollment, and translation of results to the cancer community in an understandable and accessible manner.
Advocating for accelerated research is another area where the patient’s voice is important. Patients can and do identify research priorities for researchers, funding agencies, and pharma. Patients who support research advocacy are frequently part of meetings and panel discussions with researchers, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Cancer Institute. And, they serve on advisory boards for pharmaceutical companies. They participate in grant reviews and institutional review boards, review manuscripts, and are active members of the cooperative groups and other professional societies. In fact, patient-led advocacy groups are raising money to help fund research they feel is most important to them. In lung cancer, for example, there are many groups organized around biomarkers, including the EGFR Resisters, ALK Positive, ROS1ders, MET Crusaders, and KRAS Kickers, who have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund investigator-led translational research that would not have occurred without their involvement.
It is important to recognize that all patients are different and have different values and motivations that are important to them and influence their life decisions. Some patients want to know more about their condition and their preferences should be respected. Similarly, it’s critical to understand that not every patient is an advocate and not every advocate is a research advocate. Research advocates have more in-depth knowledge about the science of lung cancer and focus on representing the patient perspective for all lung cancer patients.
So, getting back to my original story: Did my patient “give up” by choosing palliative care without chemotherapy? Perhaps, but I don’t think she considered her decision “giving up.” Instead, she made the best decision possible for herself. What would have happened had she not been told of her diagnosis? She probably would not have spent extra quality time with her family, as they tried to ignore the obvious. And, after all, quality time with her family was all she wanted.
Dr. Schiller is a medical oncologist and founding member of Oncologists United for Climate and Health. She is a former board member of the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer and a current board member of the Lung Cancer Research Foundation. Ivy Elkins, cofounder of EGFR Resisters, a patient, survivor, and caregiver advocacy group, contributed to this article.