From Small Talk to Real Connection
A conversation between strangers takes one cancer survivor on a journey of advocacy.
On May 15, 2015, LaMarion Spence, from Sonoma County, Calif., — a robust and people-oriented business owner with an online juicing company and a small-town haberdashery — went to the ER because he was feeling short of breath. He was treated for a lung infection and stayed in the hospital for five days. After his release, he underwent a battery of tests as his symptoms worsened. He was sent to the radiation oncology department of the nearest major healthcare facility — about an hour’s drive — where he was diagnosed with non-small-cell lung cancer. Spence was prescribed erlotinib hydrochloride, a chemotherapy drug, and his cancer responded well to the treatment.
The drug continued to work for a year and a half. But in December of 2016, Spence developed two additional tumors. This time the diagnosis came back small-cell lung cancer. He was put on the drug osimertinib in an attempt to arrest the tumor growth. He received radiation by robotic treatment, which included 15-minute applications specifically focused on the tumor. Today he has no prognosis and still lives with his cancer. He says, “I feel fine most days, although it is more difficult to exert because of tightness in my chest. Somedays I need more rest than others.”
After his first radiation treatment, Spence and a friend were out celebrating at a local restaurant. At the same time, Joshua M. McDonald, MD, a diagnostic radiologist at Radiology Consultants of Iowa in Cedar Rapids, happened to be visiting northern California. As McDonald and a friend were enjoying appetizers and drinks, a conversation arose between the two sets of friends about Spence’s experience with cancer treatment and his outlook on his diagnosis. The small talk became a far-reaching conversation that lasted for hours. Says McDonald of hearing Spence’s cancer story, “He has such a wonderful, warm manner and spoke so eloquently about life: the great gift that it is for us all. When he spoke about his diagnosis, his outlook on treatment was completely optimistic.”
“We as radiologists are an integral part of the healthcare team and give exacting interpretations of imaging studies that lead to accurate diagnoses of disease and the monitoring of treatment response for patients,” says McDonald. “He reminded me that although we are not perceived as a patient-facing specialty, our privilege of working in the healthcare field is a true gift. We get to use our knowledge and training to improve the lives of others.”
Spence takes his life day to day, but he knows the cancer diagnosis will never go away. He describes his experience with his radiation oncologist as a combination of science and personality: a partnership of communication and emotion that work curiously well together.
“There is comfort and assurance in not facing the battle alone, but rather with someone who is confident and committed to treating you,” says Spence. “It’s something: knowing that their entire life is dedicated to treating your disease.” Bedside manner makes a huge difference, as well. Spence’s doctors know the details of his life, rather than viewing him as simply a case study. Spence says his radiologist is hands-on, providing guidance, wisdom, and support.
After McDonald returned to his practice in Iowa, he asked if Spence would be interested in sharing his story to show the positive effect radiologists can have by connecting with their patients. Spence was thrilled to share his story and was contacted by a representative from ACR’s Commission on Patient- and Family-Centered Care. Spence believes it is a gift to advocate for others, and this is his chance to contribute.
McDonald continues, “I believe a brilliant individual such as LaMarion can inspire radiologists and others with his uplifting story. He does not view his treatment with dread, but with hope. His story reminds me of all the high-minded notions I had as a young man, of helping the community and people by working to make their lives better. These same ideas prompted me to dedicate myself to the study of medicine and filled my essays for medical school applications.”
“A patient can’t walk away unscathed from hearing bad news, and doctors aren’t unscathed either,” says Spence. “The information patients receive from their physicians only makes them stronger. I view it as, this person has given me information that shows me a path out of here.”
Spence concludes, “This is my story, and I want to tell it. My purpose is to get the best quality of life for the rest of my life, and my duty is to advocate for others.”
By Dara L. Fox, freelance writer, ACR Press