Brian has a friend. A “good friend”, he says. Always there, silently helping him forget the horror that haunts his life. Alcohol. But even this “good friend”, the cool and welcome liquid, cannot help him wash away the burning sensation in his throat, or remove the pressure from his neck. Brian, in his mid-fifties, has head and neck cancer. For some time now, a malignant tumor has been growing at the base of his tongue. And Brian has been battling its symptoms by drinking.
No curtain falls to make it all better. The audience, visitors to the Senseless symposium, is treated to an unflinching look at the everyday life of a patient suffering from head and neck cancer. The performance, centered around a disease, is a bold experiment. The play premiered in September 2011 at the European Multidisciplinary Cancer Congress (EMCC) in Stockholm.
The audience watches on as Brian nearly drives himself into the ground. And his estranged daughter fights for his love – and, most importantly, for his life. For Brian, going to the doctor and tackling the problem head-on is unthinkable. The diagnosis comes at a late point in time – as is often the case with this type of cancer.
A challenge for doctors: communication
“Two-thirds of head and neck cancers are diagnosed too late,” confirms Jean-Louis Lefebvre, Professor for head and neck surgery at Centre Oscar Lambret in Lille, France, and Chairman of the European Head and Neck Society (EHNS). The symposium, entitled Senseless, marks the launch of Make Sense, a campaign aimed at raising awareness of the world’s sixth most common cancer. The initiative is spearheaded by Merck Serono in collaboration with the EHNS.
The plenary sessions, brochures and the play are aimed at medical professionals and the general public alike. Two studies, About Face 1 and About Face 2, preceded the symposium and the Make Sense campaign.
The first study, carried out in 2009, analyzed awareness of the condition among the general public. The second study, conducted in 2010, focused on patients and their self-reported experiences and needs from pre-diagnosis through post-treatment.
The conclusion: one of the challenges doctors are facing besides treating the disease is communicating about it with patients. A further problem: many general practitioners are not very well versed with head and neck cancer, and misinterpret its vague symptoms. As a result, a specialist is consulted much too late.
One finding of the study was that one of the challenges doctors are facing besides treating the disease is communicating about it with patients
Back to Brian, the typical head and neck cancer patient. After hours of prodding from his daughter, condensed to minutes in the play, he has made his way to a doctor’s office where he is undergoing a biopsy with alcohol-fueled reluctance.
Oropharyngeal carcinoma, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computerized axial tomography (CAT)… upon hearing the diagnosis and recommended treatment steps as radiotherapy and surgery, he enters a state of shock.
The doctor’s unintelligible jargon spins around his head, surrounding him like a cloud. Within seconds, his humdrum sore throat and strange cough have been transformed into a nightmare. And there is no escape.