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In the Midst of His Own Cancer Treatment, A Doctor Scans Family DNA For A Link

after radiation therapy
Lauren Weghorst
Dr. Flockhart holds a radiation mask.

Dr. David Flockhart is a pharmacogeneticist and contributor to Sound Medicine who was recently diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a type of brain cancer. In our continuing series of conversations, Dr. Flockhart shares his experiences of treatment and recovery, and what he's learned about the disease, and about himself. In this recording, he talks with bioethicist and longtime friend Eric Meslin.* 

On how he copes with the data on life expectancy for people with his type of cancer

"Everybody thinks that the middle statistic is the statistic that matters. But what is really hard to understand is that there's a high percentage of people who live a short time, and there's a high percentage that live a long time.

So, for example, with this disease, glioblastomamultiforme, there are people out there who live 14 years. That's really different from someone whose gonna live 12-14 months, which is the middle. It really gives one a perspective on the need to think about it day to day rather than waiting for 14 months to come and then ‘Here I am, I'm ready to go!'

It’s an important thing for patients because there are things you can do to put yourself on the longer side of the spectrum."

On discovering a family history of the disease

"This is not thought of as a genetic disease, but my mother had the same disease, down to the same histology. So we embarked on a family exercise to collect everybody's DNA, about 12 of us.

The minute you bring genetics up it brings up really interesting questions: 'If you had it, would you wanna know?'"

On how he thinks about the research he’s doing on himself and his family

"Part of what I want to do is bring more rationality to the public discussion of cancer and to the discussion of science in general. But the whole raison d'etre for the discussion is partly because I approach it with a sense of wonderment, and a sense of 'wow.'"

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

*Correction: In the conversation with Drs. David Flockhart and Eric Meslin, the narration states that the two met at Georgetown University. In fact, they were both at Georgetown at the same time (Dr. Meslin completed his Ph.D in Bioethics in 1988, while Dr. Flockhart was chief resident at Georgetown Hospital in 1987), but they did not actually meet until both joined the faculty of the Indiana University School of Medicine in 2001.