Emory University
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Navigating the language of cancer

New ways to help patients better understand the world of cancer treatment.

By Rebecca Pentz, Illustration by Rafael Lopez

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If a regular visit to a doctor's office is like entering a Mayan temple, understanding the terminology used in cancer treatment is like landing on Mars. We take this challenge of communication very seriously at Winship Cancer Institute.

For instance, chemotherapy terms can be difficult to understand, so the ethics team at Winship has interviewed 50 patients about those terms. In cancer, "stage" is not something for your kids and grandkids to perform on and "port" is not a nice after-dinner drink. But then what do they mean? Winship just awarded the ethics team a generous grant to develop an iPad slide show to explain this vocabulary, so that the language of chemotherapy will not be so foreign.

The idea of using an iPad program to explain important terms was pioneered by two of our prostate cancer physicians, Viraj Master and Ashesh Jani. After determining that many prostate cancer patients have an extremely limited understanding of terms like impotence and incontinence, the doctors developed an iPad program using animation and simple language to explain them. Doctors use these and other terms to talk about the possible side effects of certain prostate cancer treatments, so understanding them is critical for patients facing decisions about their treatment options.

For cancers that have a hereditary component, Winship has a team of genetic counselors who can help you understand the impact of those genes on your treatment and the risk factors they might pose for your family. Although most cancers do not have a hereditary component, all tumors have genetic changes that tell the cancer cell to grow and spread. Doctors use terms like "driver mutations" and "mechanisms of resistance" when talking about these genetic changes. One of our physicians, Suresh Ramalingam, explains that cancer is like a bus, and that there are certain genes that may be "out of whack" or mutated and thus in the driver's seat. For some of these driver mutations, we have therapies that can stop the driver and his bus. Another Winship doctor, Walid Shaib, explains resistance like this: cancer travels on pathways, like I-75. We might be able to block I-75, but after a while the cancer often finds another pathway and heads up I-85 instead.

The ethics team has been listening to physician/patient conversations to find the best communication techniques to describe them. We will continue to sit in on these discussions and ask the patients afterwards if they understood the key terms. That way we can help other physicians better explain the genetics of cancer.

Clinical research studies also can be difficult to understand because they include both procedures that you would normally have for your treatment and research-only procedures whose results have no impact on your care. You might have one blood draw early in the day that directs your treatment, but the very next blood draw goes straight to the research lab. To help you tell the difference, the ethics team gives each patient a chart with an X by every procedure in either the "helps me" or the "does not help me" box. We hope this helps patients understand the research that they so heroically participate in.

So yes, cancer is a Mayan temple, but at Winship you are not left to wander its dark hallways alone. We want to provide expert translators and knowledgeable guides for the journey.

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