This month I started a fellowship that predominantly involves taking care of women with cancer. Through surgery, chemotherapy, and other medications we do our best to cure or hold back malignancies of many kinds. In these past weeks, I have taken care of several patients who are Jehovah Witnesses, an experience that has been quite interesting.
In most cases, what religion a person subscribes to has little to no impact on their clinical outcome. We have an exception, however, when it comes to a Jehovah’s Witness with cancer. JHW patients to a rule will not accept blood products of any kind, which greatly limits their ability to be effectively treated for cancer. In some cases they cannot have surgery because the surgery they need is unsafe without the possibility of blood transfusion. In some cases they cannot take chemotherapy because blood transfusion is required to survive the associated myelosuppression. As surgery and chemotherapy are our two best treatments, they are at a major disadvantage.
When I was a resident, I had a pretty hard opinion about this. I heard a lot of different view on the topic, but the position of one of my attendings resonated best with me. He felt that his job as a physician was to protect the health of his patients, and that if a JHW was dying in front of him he was going to transfuse them whether they liked it or not. He was quite clear about this upfront, and told JHW patients that if they were not happy about this they should find another doctor. He even arranged for attending coverage for emergent issues if need be. He felt that the preventable death of a patient was an emotional trauma he didn’t want to be exposed to, almost as if the patient, through refusal of blood, was exposing him to unnecessary emotional violence. While this was a very hard line, I respected the boldness of it, and that he was being true to his internal values. I held a similar feeling for the first few years of my attendinghood, though I never had to test it until my third year out of residency.
Our first reader question -
“A patient of mine had ovarian cancer, she’s brought her 13 year old in for a consultation regarding various issues of irregular menses. ….how soon we should start getting CA125s…. Have an answer/opinion for exactly how young to start?”
That’s a great question!
First, there is probably not a definitive answer. Screening for ovarian cancer is clearly an area where we do not have good answers. I think a clear part of this question is actually whether or not the patient should be screened at all. Patients think that there should be a good screening for ovarian cancer, but based on current literature and practice, I don’t think there is any method for screening this patient that is effective.