Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Ethics, Ambiguity & "The Emperor"
Ethical decision-making is a balancing act. Sounds simple enough. But finding that balance is about as simple as getting the toxic cocktail right for a round of chemotherapy: Strong enough to do what’s needed, but not too toxic. Benefit and harm in every drop.
There was much to absorb in the first night of “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies,” even having read and reread Siddhartha Mukherjee’s remarkable “biography of cancer” that inspired the three-part PBS documentary.
The opening episode did many things right, but nothing captured for me the unyielding ambiguity of cancer care more than one parent’s description of the quest to cure childhood leukemia: “Unspeakably depressing and indescribably hopeful.”
Among the more than 15,000 sending tweets during the opening episode (#CancerFilm, @theNCI), one said she lasted 10 minutes before tuning out. She hopes to make it to 15 tonight, but no promises. Such is the ambiguity simply in choosing to watch while a family becomes a husband, a wife and their despair.
Even as I anticipate the second of three episodes, I’m still struggling with the tension between Sidney Farber’s firm and angrily defended stance against harming vulnerable children and research practices that clearly harmed sick children but in the process transformed childhood leukemia from merciless and fatal to merciless but survivable.
“I will not injure two children to save one,” the chemotherapy pioneer once said in a heated encounter with another pediatric oncologist.
Farber said this in the mid-1960s, when at the National Cancer Institute, Emil Freireich and Emil Frei were increasing survival of pediatric leukemia by experimenting with four toxic chemicals in combination. That was too many for Farber, who was as dedicated as anyone to treating and curing leukemia but saw harm as tipping the balance.
And yet, into the 1960s, no child survived leukemia. Today, nine out of 10 survive it, largely due to the evolving chemo cocktail.
The half-century that produced that astounding fact also led to the elevated place of informed consent in medicine and science. On Monday night, we watched parents absorb some promising news and then have to decide whether to follow the medical team’s advice and give their child over to a randomized trial. “The thought of your child’s treatment being up to a computer is hard to take.” Indeed.
Reality TV gets no more real than “Emperor of All Maladies.” I’ll be watching again tonight. Hopefully for the full two hours. But, as an oncologist might say, no promises.
Cross-posted at paulcmclean.com.
Also see Matthew Herper’s excellent piece for Forbes.
By Paul McLean at 12:42 PM