S1E12 | Traveling for treatment, whole-person care & ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking: A conversation with rare cancer patient Eric K.
Pat Basu: Hi. I'm Pat Basu, president and CEO of Cancer Treatment Centers of America and the host of Focus on Cancer. 2020's been a very challenging year. The COVID- 19 pandemic has affected all of us in so many ways. But here during the holidays, it's time to look for optimism, look for hope, and look for things that we can be grateful for. I'm grateful to bring to you a very special guest today, a patient named Eric, who is going to share his very uplifting, very inspiring story with you. Welcome to the show, Eric.
Eric: Thank you for having me, Pat. I'm really glad to be here.
Pat Basu: Well, we're glad to have you here. And I just want to dive into it. Like so many patients, your cancer, as I sometimes say, was kind of lightning out of a blue sky. You weren't expecting it. It wasn't sort of something that was building up. But share with us the story of your diagnosis and the beginning of your battle with cancer.
Eric: I was 43 years old. I was a married father of three kids. I'm a police officer in Texas. And I was really doing well both personally and professionally. And I just had a pain in my lower back at one point. I thought I might have a kidney stone, so I ended up going to a doctor to have that checked out. A series of tests were run, one thing led to another. And I was diagnosed with a pretty rare form of cancer and given somewhat of a grim diagnosis there right out of the gate. So it wasn't, for a 43 year old, who otherwise was pretty healthy and active, it was quite a shock for me.
Pat Basu: Yeah. I am sure that it was. I know, again, as I said before, talking to so many patients, it is not like so many other healthcare issues that we deal with, where generally there's kind of a buildup. You go from one to two, two to three. Cancer, sadly, is one of those things where you're just oftentimes going along on a, whatever, a Tuesday or Wednesday, and then something happens, you get that diagnosis. That's certainly the common story. And I do agree with you. Most types of kidney cancers would fall into the category of what we call renal cell carcinoma or RCC. For listeners at home, that's usually the inner lining of the tubules of the kidney that is what causes renal cell carcinoma and not necessarily common, but one of the ways that often presents might be blood in the urine, or a variety of other symptoms. But Eric, as you mentioned squamous cell carcinoma arises actually from the squamous cells, which are really the skin cells, the epithelial lining. And that not only portends a different diagnosis, but it does portend a different treatment. And so tell us about that.
Eric: Well, I went from my doctor that was local in San Antonio and decided to go to a bigger cancer center. At the time, they could only find about 12 people who had ever been diagnosed with the squamous cell carcinoma of the kidney. And there was really not a protocol for how to treat it. So they started with a round of chemotherapy, which was unsuccessful. And from there, they didn't really know where to go. I was told that I wasn't a candidate for surgery, and I was sent home at that point. And it was my wife who was very adamant that we not give up, and continue to look for options. One thing led to another and she found Cancer Treatment Centers on a Google search, and ended up calling because she saw that she could call 24 hours a day. She ended up calling and having this very long hour and a half or so conversation right out of the gate with the CTCA rep, and she was just really impressed. She couldn't speak highly enough after that conversation. And she was the one that convinced me that it was worth coming to Phoenix and hearing what another set of doctors had to say about my diagnosis.
Pat Basu: Well, yeah. I mean, I can certainly imagine how you felt not only getting that diagnosis, but then being told about limited treatment options. And so often, it is a loving family member, a caregiver that is that warrior alongside of you. And it sounds like your wife helped play that role of researching options and leaving no stone unturned. It sounds like you talked to some large centers. What were you told in terms of your treatment options? And kind of how did things progress from a treatment perspective?
Eric: Well, when I left Texas, I was told I wasn't a candidate for surgery. There were some current concerns on where the cancer may have spread to. And I was basically told that their main goal was keeping me comfortable because they didn't have a good option for how to treat the cancer. Once again, we're talking about a cancer that didn't really have any protocols for doctors to follow. So when we came to CTCA in Phoenix, we were really blown away, not only by the medical care we received, but by the entire package of how we were treated as people, of the support that we received. At that point, I had just finished some pretty heavy chemo. I was feeling pretty poor. But every single person we met without any exceptions, completely exceeded our expectations. To this day, we still have friends we met back in 2014 when I came here for the first time, and they still remember me on a first name basis. And I still speak to them every time I'm here. So it was a completely different experience than anything we had expected. And then when we moved into the medical portion, the doctors were willing to hear what I had to say and what I thought, and what my goals were. At the time, I had a three year old, who's nine years old now. But at the time, my goal was for my three year old, for me to be around long enough for him to remember me. If cancer was going to ultimately be my demise, at least push that off until my youngest son would have memories of me. That was really what my original goal was. And the doctors that I had said, " Well, if that's your goal, let's get to work on finding a way to make that happen." And they listened to my input and asked me questions. And we came up with a treatment plan that was by no means guaranteed, but the mere fact that they were willing to try some things that would probably be considered outside the box really ultimately ended up saving my life.
Pat Basu: I'm glad to hear that you had that experience, that you felt that way. I often say that cancer is not just a disease of the body, but also of the mind. And you need to look at the patient, the human being, holistically. You need to not only fight this battle physically, but also emotionally and spiritually with the whole team, and so every pat on the shoulder, every look in the eye, every we're going to get through this together, I think helps. And just hearing your story, Eric, it's impossible for me not to be touched as a fellow human being, but as a fellow father.
Eric: I have two older kids. Right now today, they're 24, 22 and nine years old, and all of them were incredibly supportive during that time. My three year old was the one I had focused on at that point, more so because I really just wanted to have some time to develop some memories with him. And the team at CTCA, what was so impressive was instead of just going to a hospital or a doctor's office, where they give you a certain medication and say, " Take this, and let's see if it works," that whole person experience was really what made an impression on us here because we had people that were concerned with how I slept and how I ate and how they could improve that quality of life, so not only would I survive cancer, but that I would actually thrive while I was going through that treatment. So those were huge pluses that we experienced when we came here that were sometimes simple little things, but made a huge impact on me as a cancer patient that I had not experienced anywhere else.
Pat Basu: Well, again, that's fantastic and warms my heart. And I actually have one of my children now is three years old, and so as you were sharing your story, it's impossible for me not to relate to you and think about that, and just share your feeling of wanting to get more time. And I love that you have that fighting spirit that says, " Not today," to cancer. And you've done an incredible job of living life and thriving as you mentioned before. I want to get into that in a moment. Before we go there, you certainly mentioned the holistic aspect of care that was important to you. But ultimately with a rare cancer type, as you had with squamous cell cancer of the kidneys, it does actually take really cutting edge medical treatment and a boldness to try new things. So give us a sense of what the medical treatment was for treating your cancer.
Eric: Well, for me, previously I'd been told I wasn't a surgical candidate. And when I got into some deeper discussions with my care team here at CTCA in Phoenix, I brought that topic up again. And it was explained to me that typically what would be done in a situation for kidney cancer would be to remove that kidney, and you'd live with one kidney. And I asked, " Can we do that?" I was explained the ramifications of having that surgery and what the likely outcomes could be. The doctors were very honest with me, but at the same time, very supportive of the decisions that I was making. So there was some concern about some spread to some other areas of the body, but my thinking at the time was if taking out this cancerous kidney was going to buy me time, then I was willing to go through that surgery. So fast forward to the surgery, they took out my left kidney, did some biopsies in other areas, and ultimately, all the cancer was removed in that one surgery, and I was cancer free at the beginning of 2015, so it was really somewhat of a great story because I had been told I wasn't a candidate for surgery. And ultimately, I ended up being a candidate not only for surgery, but a very, very successful surgery at that. And... After I started my recovery, I put my foot on the gas and started living life with kind of a renewed vigor to get things done that people don't often think of when they're in their 40s. A lot of times we think, " I'm going to go there when I retire. That's something we'll do down the road." We changed our whole perspective that if it was possible for us to do something, we were going to have that experience and live that experience because having cancer does make you realize that nothing's guaranteed. And so my last six years has really been going back to my job and continuing to do the best I can for the people that I serve in Texas. And then as well, taking the time to have those experiences with my family, and travel and do some things that most people may push off until later in life.
Pat Basu: I love to hear that, and what a great perspective you have on life. And in a moment, I want to ask you some of the advice that you give to other patients about that. But just as I hear your story again, you do have a very rare cancer. But at the same time, there's some common themes, Eric, that I hear. And as an advanced cancer center, we do obviously get a lot of patients who come to us for a second opinion, or they've initiated care somewhere else. And look, cancer care is a complex, probably the most complex area of medical care, whether it be a clinical trial or not a clinical trial, where we're just willing to at all costs give the patient a fighting chance. It just is amazing for me to be able to just sit in front of you here on camera and hear it live from you. Before I get to some of the advice that you share to other patients, I'm just so enthralled by kind of your story of your son being three at the time, and now nine. You mind just sharing with me just over the last six years, and with your perspective, just a story where you and he bonded or did something that might've been fun, that's transpired over the last few years that you might not have otherwise been able to do?
Eric: Oh, absolutely. And there's a ton of them to choose from. One of the ones that I think probably sticks out in my mind is when he was about five years old, he started martial arts, he's really excelled at it. And we've gone to some state and national tournaments that I've got to participate in supporting his team as they travel and help" coach" them through some of that stuff. And I remember even thinking being out on the floor with a couple hundred little kids that are doing TaeKwonDo just a few years before, I got wheeled into Phoenix in a wheelchair because I was too weak to walk, and thinking about those things, now standing out here helping these kids excel at what they love to do was something that I not only had never dreamed that I would be able to do, but was really enjoying. That was one of those bonding experiences that me and him enjoyed. And I've had those experiences with all my kids, with all three of my kids. We've done different things over the last six years because you do look at life through a different lens once you've had cancer, and especially once you've had a cancer that you didn't expect to survive.
Pat Basu: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, I'm so glad that you have a long, long list of new memories with all of your children and your community and for yourself that you've been able to enjoy and participate in. And I certainly look forward to many, many more for you. As I mentioned before, you have such a great story and such a great perspective. What advice do you typically share with other patients given what you've been through and what you've learned?
Eric: Based on what I do, I'm the police chief in the small suburb of San Antonio, Texas, and so when I went through my cancer experience, it was somewhat public. People knew I had cancer, and I was okay with that. But because of that now, when other friends and people who know me are diagnosed with cancer, they often have seen my successful recovery and come to me with questions. And I always tell them, if you're not happy with the diagnosis- If you're not happy with the plan that you are given, or you're not comfortable with what you've been told, don't hesitate to get a second or a third opinion. There's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't discount your faith that you have in the doctor that you're talking to. But I think cancer treatment is changing month by month. There's things that are happening constantly in the field of cancer care, and there might be something out there that you just haven't been told about yet. And that's one of the reasons we really love to recommend CTCA to people. But wherever they go, make sure that they're comfortable with the team that's taking care of them because that is very vital. You have to have faith in those people that are taking care of you.
Pat Basu: Well, that's tremendous advice. It aligns with many of the things that I tell patients, Eric, is exactly that. I like to say that an empowered patient is one of the most important parts of a healthy patient, and frankly, a healthy, better American healthcare system because the human element of medical care is so critical, and sometimes it gets lost. Sometimes people are treated as a number. Sometimes people are treated as robots. And sometimes unintentionally, they're just sort of put on this conveyor belt where they're directed through the various nodes of the healthcare system kind of one after another, where a very well intentioned doctor might be sending them on the way. But I tell patients, " Ask every question. It's your life. It's you. If something isn't 100% clear, ask about it." And we as physicians would love to answer those questions. We owe you those answers. And sometimes when I give this advice, people are sort of shocked. They say, " Well, I didn't know I could do that." Or as you said, " Geez, I thought I might offend you." The exact opposite. We want empowered patients who care as much as we do about their healthcare. And that's what makes such a great partnership. It's actually been fulfilling to see, I think American healthcare has evolved in a good way from one of more of kind of a patriarchal model, where I just tell, and somebody does, as opposed to one where I give ideas, and then you respond. And then we come up with a care plan together. So I'm glad that you had that experience. And then similarly, the idea of an integrated care team, the idea that as I mentioned before, it's not just the medical care, which is critical, but also the emotional, the spiritual, the nutrition, the treatment of the side effects. All of those are tremendously, tremendously valuable, not just to fighting the cancer, but really continuing that battle, which can be a long battle. Right?
Eric: Oh, absolutely. One of the things that I struggled with when I first came to CTCA was I had gone through chemotherapy. And chemotherapy affects everybody differently. For me, it never made me feel nauseous. It just took away my appetite completely, and I lost about 60 pounds in six weeks of chemotherapy. When I came to CTCA, that was one of the first things that was addressed, was hey, we can give you something to help stimulate your appetite a little bit. And I remember, I can tell you where I was sitting in the lobby inside the front door of this hospital, I can tell you the bench I was sitting on when all of a sudden, I had an appetite again, and started going and having three meals a day. And what a huge impact that was for me at that time. People don't think a whole lot about things like that, but from going to where you might want to eat a meal every day or two, to being hungry to eat three times a day, it was huge. And it was one component of my recovery that I think made it a lot easier because I was actually eating and wanting to eat, and I developed an appetite again. Little things like that, that had never been addressed previously when I had been treated, and there was a lot of those stories that happened. And it was that, just like CTCA treats through surgery and chemo and radiation, but there's all these peripheral components that often go overlooked at other places that lend themselves to a patient actually living while they're getting treatment and not just existing.
Pat Basu: Absolutely. I talk to patients about this all the time. The joys of life, that when they disappear with some like cancer, boy, it makes those days seem like weeks or months. And it's so critical. It's critical just for treating somebody as a human being. Right? The goal is not only to add life to years, or to add years to life, but to add life to years. And at the same time, they're really related. I sometimes talk to physicians about this topic, and I show survival curves and outcomes graphs, which is one of the things that we strive greatly for is the best treatment outcomes, the greatest survival. But I also point to another graph which shows our management of symptoms. And I say that these two graphs are related because in this battle against cancer, in that journey, the ability to treat a patient's side effects, to restore their appetite, to take away itching, pain, burning, or other side effects that they may be having, that's what enables a patient to want to keep going, want to keep fighting, want to keep up with their therapy. And speaking of which, we were chatting right before you started the show here. You literally had a procedure done this morning, and it sounds like that has gone well. But as I see you there in one of our hospitals, it certainly drives home the point, especially right now during the COVID pandemic, that a lot of patients are having their care disrupted. I'm not sure if you know this, but cancer diagnoses during this pandemic have decreased 30% to 35% because patients are not getting their screenings. They're not getting their therapy. Too much of the care is getting disrupted. And in your case, your case is very similar to many in the sense that 70% to 80% of our patients travel some significant distance to come to us, many more than 100, 150 miles, a couple hundred miles. They drive to come see us. Tell me what made you decide to make that trip. It's not easy to travel a couple hundred miles to come see us.
Eric: Well, I'll tell you that for me, it really parlayed from everything we've experienced along the whole journey. Once we came here in 2014, the treatment that we received, both the medical treatment and the personal treatment has been so beyond our expectations that it would be hard for us to go anywhere else at this point. I do still come back periodically for checkups, and everything's gone well. And I could do that in San Antonio if I choose to do that, but this is my second home now. I know that people here. I know the doctors here. I know people in the kitchen. I know janitorial staff. And this is really my second home, and I don't say that as a catch phrase. We are very comfortable in Phoenix. And we will treat here as long as we can, and continue to come back for checkups. Now the travel component, what I've said to many people who have come and talked to me about their cancer diagnosis is, for most of us, we live in a suburban area and we have to drive to a metropolitan area to get the treatment that's required for cancer. And unfortunately, what I found out, out of the gate, was if you have to drive 30 minutes to an hour to get to your doctor, you're probably going to have to make a second appointment for another doctor. And then there'll be a third doctor along the line that you have to see. And those appointments are going to be on different days, and they're going to be maybe on different weeks. So while, yes, I do travel to Phoenix to still be treated and go through followups and checkups, I can do in one day or maybe two days what may take me three or four trips to San Antonio or Houston to accomplish. So that's one of the things that people rarely think about, that everything at CTCA is under one roof, so I can walk in the door. I can have multiple appointments in one day and be done, versus making multiple trips and having to take off of work, or alter your schedule in some way. I can do it all in a relatively short period of time here. On top of that, the travel department at CTCA is amazing, and they make traveling here very easy, so it's a no brainer for me. I will continue to be treated here. And I've had friends that have come, and they've treated at both in Phoenix and other CTCA locations. And once they've made that first trip, I always hear the same thing. Now I understand what you're talking about. That is so easy to do and they treat me so great, that's where we're going. I have friends that live in Texas that go to the Chicago CTCA or the Tulsa CTCA, and it's the same story. I know that if they go to CTCA, they will be a CTCA patient because the care that they receive is just really second to none. That just goes beyond the medical care, like I said, the travel department and all the other departments that are peripheral to the medical care you're getting, they're all just so amazing. And it's not just me that has experienced that. It's other people I know.
Pat Basu: Yeah. There's no question. It's hard enough battling the disease inside your body, that we certainly like to try and take other obstacles out of your way. But you bring up some really good points in terms of cancer care, the idea of the non fragmented care, but having everybody there, so you get all your appointments on the same day, versus you see one doctor one day, another doctor the next week. Also, just the speed to diagnosis to treatment, there's just a real emotional comfort to the way things are designed to getting cancer diagnosed quickly, getting it treated comprehensively, and having it all done at one time. Obviously, you're here during this pandemic that has been on everybody's mind. And we've done a lot to really, really make sure we have incredible protections for our patients and for our employees at our hospitals. Given that you're there right now, hopefully you've noticed some of those things. Did you feel safe in terms of the things that we've put in place to protect you from COVID?
Eric: Absolutely. As a patient, those are things I notice. When I come here for an appointment, I get a COVID test done. I mean, they do it the second I pull up. They've got people at the doors taking temperatures and monitoring who's coming in and out of the building. I think the protocols that have taken place here have probably, as much as you can do in this time of COVID to keep everybody safe. But I think that there's no fear once I'm in here of interacting with people because the way the appointments are laid out and the social distancing, and just the entire method that they've put into place to keep people safe as they come into the CTCA facility really puts your mind at ease as a patient or as a caregiver.
Pat Basu: Well, terrific. We certainly tried to do that and be a leader, not just in cancer care, but in reacting to how we protect our patients and our employees during this challenging time. Well, with that, I know we talked earlier, your procedure went well. Just for our audience, I know they've learned a lot. I've really enjoyed having you. Tell me just kind of an update on how you're doing with your cancer prognosis and how you're feeling, and what our doctors told you earlier today.
Eric: Well, I feel great. I've really returned to 100% of doing of what I did before. I'm fairly active. I still have no signs of cancer. The checkups I continue to come back and do, and will continue to do. And hopefully, I'll continue on this road that I've started on of leading a healthy life once again. We're doing great. The family's all wonderful, and we really, what's very bizarre is most guys don't like going to doctors or seeing doctors, and we really look forward when we come back. Our doctors have just been great, as has the whole staff here. So we enjoy coming back to Phoenix and visiting when we do, and for checkups. And I couldn't ask, there's nothing I could really ask for as far as a prognosis looking forward that could be any better. That could change, but as for the time being, everything's going wonderful.
Pat Basu: Fantastic. Well, that warms my heart to hear as a doctor speaking to a patient, as one American to another, as a father, to a fellow father, I am just so, so grateful for you and your story, for you sharing that journey with us. So glad to hear you've, despite that day when you got that diagnosis six year ago, that you've had an incredibly successful battle, that you've been able to log many, many happy memories with your loved ones, and I look forward to you doing that for years to come. So Eric, thank you so much for your courage. Thank you for sharing your story. What an uplifting way to have a show during the holidays here when so many of us are looking for inspiration and gratitude. You've certainly provided it to me, and I know to many of our listeners, so thank you.
Eric: Thank you for having me, Pat. It's been great to be here today.