June 13, 2023

The Patient Perspective: Survivors Reflect on Their Cancer Journey

Each of the millions of people diagnosed with cancer each year have a unique case, and therefore a unique story to tell. It is important to elevate these stories not only to help other patients, but in the hopes that they might impact and improve the future of cancer care. Paige had the incredible opportunity to speak with several survivors on the winning side of their cancer battles, who reflected on their experiences and shared powerful advice.

Together, their stories pointed to a few key takeaways physicians and patients around the globe could benefit from:

1. Communication is Key

Michael Kassin was in his early fifties when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. While receiving a cancer diagnosis is never easy, Michael was facing challenges in his personal life that made the news all the more emotionally taxing. He decided to leverage a support group for prostate cancer patients and families where he said he realized the power open communication can have throughout the cancer journey. “I think a key issue is that men must have the permission to talk openly with each other. It is still a problem for men…if they knew that on the other side there would be support, they might be less reluctant to go through this.”

The need for communication extends to physicians too. Michael noted that open, caring communication between physicians and patients can really impact the care experience. In his case, the feeling that the team in the hospital where he received his care didn’t just want to cure his ailment, but truly wanted to see him be well gave him the will to fight through his situation.

Stephanie Wieser, a breast cancer survivor, agreed. She said one of the things that stood out about her care was the direct dialogue throughout. “It might not seem like it, but bedside manner, and finding a doctor who you feel comfortable to speak honestly with, really matters.”

Though the importance of this is often known by doctors, for patients, this is an important reminder. Lean into the resources available to you, ask questions, and be willing to be vulnerable when you need support, be it from your care team or those close to you.

2. Personalization Matters

Communication goes hand in hand with personalized care, which Stephanie pointed out as another key thing for patients to look for, and for doctors to strive to give. Following her initial diagnosis, Stephanie sought a second opinion. After hearing all the treatment options laid out by the physicians she consulted, she did her own research, spoke with women who had gone through the same experience, and took the time to understand what each treatment would truly entail. She presented this research to her care team and advocated for the treatment she felt suited her best, which was in fact a step beyond what doctors had first suggested. Though recovery from the surgery itself would be more challenging, Stephanie felt the peace of mind outweighed the cons, and she was grateful that her care team worked with her to find a treatment that would work best for her physically and emotionally.

This is a sentiment that Reggie Dye, a prostate cancer survivor, echoed as well. Like Michael, Reggie was diagnosed on the younger side for prostate cancer patients, in his early fifties. As he was early stage, he was given the option to watch and wait before beginning treatment, which he felt would leave him with tremendous anxiety. Alternatively, he could undergo prostate surgery or radiation, but he was concerned about the incontinence, impotence, and other known impacts this could bring to his health. Luckily, he had a doctor who understood his fears and concerns, and worked together with him to find the treatment option that made the most sense for him, personally. This was a new treatment at the time called High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU). He says that his doctor not only having access to the most up-to-date technology but encouraging Reggie to try it despite it being less traditional, made his treatment and recovery significantly better.

For healthcare teams and patients alike, then, taking the extra time to work together is critical. As we move into a world where new tools are making precision medicine more accessible, we will begin to a shift in the cancer care process that enables patients to be closer to their care decisions.

3. The Earlier, the Better

Early detection also makes a big impact on the variety of care options available to patients, which is just one of many reasons it is key. As a young, healthy man, Reggie had laxed on his regular physicals, but decided to get a blood test as part of promotion being run by his insurance. It was this blood test that revealed he had high prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels, which can signal the presence of prostate cancer. Ultimately, this helped him find his cancer early enough to be eligible for the HIFU treatment he received, which has since allowed him to live a healthy and comfortable life. He urges men not to put off their screenings and regular check-ups, as this made all the difference in his care journey.

Cameron Hall, who is living with early-stage colon cancer today, also advocated for doing your part as a patient to ensure any disease is found as quickly as possible. Cameron unfortunately lost his mother to cancer in 2021. Despite many rounds of testing, doctors struggled to find a diagnosis for her disease, which spread throughout her body before her passing. Following this tragedy, Cameron pressed his doctors for a colonoscopy, as while he was still young, he had had symptoms that could be indicative of the disease. It was then that his tumor was discovered. Thankfully, it was still early stage and did not require any further treatment. But his experience demonstrates how truly critical it is for doctors and patients to do everything they can to accelerate detection. “To me,” he says, “this is a strong case for early detection. My mother likely had been suffering from cancer for many years and was treated for other illnesses. While it was likely too late by the time she was diagnosed, better diagnostics may have allowed her to avoid a round of radiation. My experience informs my decision for all medical treatment and allows me to weigh the treatment options with the quality-of-life changes which accompany them.”

For all involved in the cancer care spectrum, this is something being worked at every day. New technologies are coming to the fore that make finding cancers more efficient and therefore accelerate diagnostic turnaround times to help patients begin treatments as early as they can. Yet it is still important for doctors to be open to embracing these support tools, and for patients to do their part to actively screen for potential issues.

4. Embrace Technology

There are many advanced technologies already being introduced to support each of the above goals. Perhaps one of the most powerful is artificial intelligence (AI) which is trained to have a deep knowledge of the morphology of cancer to support pathologists in their diagnosis. For example, AI can instantly read a whole-slide image and identify the area on the slide most likely to contain cancer. This is true for even small, early-stage tumors, which can help pathologists to efficiently and effectively detect and diagnose these cancers earlier. AI can also help pathologists uncover unique tissue signatures, also known as biomarkers, that provide more insight into the nature of a patient’s particular case, and can be used downstream to guide which treatments would work well in that patient. Yet, like with any emerging technology, many patients either don’t know that this is an option for them, or are hesitant about its use, favoring more traditional tools.

Reggie strongly urges against this. As the first patient to receive HIFU treatment for prostate cancer in the state of Arizona back in late 2016, he argues that embracing new technology allowed him to be where he is today; healthy, happy, and cancer free. In fact, all of the survivors we spoke to were open to the idea of AI being used in their case. Stephanie posits that perhaps with AI, she may not have needed to wait nearly 3 weeks for her complete diagnosis, which would have saved her from a lot of sleepless nights. “As long as the AI itself is as accurate as possible and the doctor’s expertise is still involved, if AI makes [diagnosis] faster, I think there’s no reason not to use it,” she said.

Michael offered a similar perspective, believing that as long as the human element is still there, AI will be helpful, and he as a patient would be open to its use. He even asked the industry to think bigger about how AI could be applied outside of the pathology lab. If there is a way to facilitate the matching of patients who have similar cases that might be good support systems for each other, he believes this could open up communication between patients that would really transform their overall experience for the better. In this way, he sees AI not as something to fear, but as a way that the overall experience of cancer might continue to get better.

At Paige, our mission is to develop the most up-to-date, clinical-grade AI tools in the industry, and deliver them into the hands of pathologists around the world. Our applications have been proven to enhance diagnostic efficiency while providing pathologists greater diagnostic confidence, allowing for streamlined pathology workflows that could accelerate the care process. Our AI products have also been designed to directly support early detection and precision medicine, which can impact not just the pathologist, but the patient as well.

By developing partnerships with other technologies in the industry as well as leading healthcare institutions, we are working to accelerate digital pathology and AI adoption so that more patients can begin to benefit. Our hope is to create a world where better technology means more cancer survivors. Today, we celebrate and honor Michael, Reggie, Cameron, and Stephanie as beacons of strength and true inspirations for the work we do each day.