So Many Unknowns: A Doctor's Frustration With Cancer Is Not What You'd Expect

Dec 5, 2014

Credit Lauren Weghorst

After being diagnosed with an advanced form of glioblastoma, Dr. David Flockhart began treatments. This gave him a new perspective on patient's experience of medical care--and on the current state of the science of treating brain tumors.

On how his understanding of medicine effects his experience as a patient:

“I think some people find that that makes it more difficult. Because you are so frustrated by what you can’t do. You can see what you were able to do before… Some people find that immensely frustrating. For some reason, I didn’t. I was just amazed that I came out, and I was able to have conversations with people. I maintained that throughout the recovery. I’ve never really had a compromise in my ability to think or reason. But, as a scientist, I think you’re hinting at a question there: is it frustrating for a scientist to come into this, and find so many unknowns? I realized very quickly what was not known about this disease. And that is frustrating.”

On whether innovations in breast cancer have helped science understand "orphan cancers" like glioblastoma:

“If you ask about the broad concept: of course we understand cancer better. There have been Noble Prizes awarded for understanding the molecular biology of cancer. We understand it much, much better than we did before. But no, innovations in breast cancer have not resulted in innovations in orphan cancers.”

On contemplating his chances of survival with brain cancer:

“There is a wide range of outcomes for this thing. That makes normal statistics kind of hard. When you have so many people at the ends of this spectrum, who do really bad or really good. The middle is a substantial number, but it’s not much bigger than the edges. It’s not like everyone has 14 months to live. There’s a wide list of possible outcomes and that’s always been a curiosity and stimulus to researchers in the area. But if you address this cancer in the same kind of block way that you address breast cancer or colon cancer, you come out with a wrong outcome. Because these are diseases when you can use the averages.”

Dr. David Flockhart is a pharmacogeneticist at the Indiana University School of Medicine.