BOOK REVIEW: One Oncologist's Journey With a Patient to the Outcome We All Face

April 12, 2020
Reviewed by Florence Caffrey Bourg, PhD
Reviewed by Florence Caffrey Bourg, PhD

Volume 26, Issue 4

SAP Partners

Editor's Note: A book by Kashyap Patel, MD, reviewed in the April issue of Evidence-Based Oncology™, was previously titled, Dying Without Fear. Due to a change by the publisher, Penguin Random House India, the book is now titled Between Life and Death: From Despair to Hope. The book is available August 1, 2020 This review has been updated to reflect the change in the book's title.

https://doi.org/10.37765/ajmc.2020.43004“Help me. I’ve never seen death before. Tell me what you know about it; what you’ve seen. What was it like to witness your patients leaving this world? Tell me how you coped with it. Aren’t you afraid of death yourself? … Can I prepare for my own death? Can I prepare my dear wife and daughters? … I need to know what happens when people die. I’d like to know so that I can plan my own exit. I want to go away in celebration, not gloom.” …“Yes, I can definitely share my journey with you. I will also share some of my other patients’ stories with you, if you believe they will help.…When do you want to begin?”“Maybe we can meet once a week at lunch time, here under this beautiful copper dome. Could we start tomorrow?”

So begins a series of conversations which unfold in the captivating relationship between Harry Falls, a former pilot with the British Royal Air Force and later a flight instructor in the United States, and Kashyap Patel, MD, author of Between Life and Death: From Despair to Hope, which will be available soon from Penguin Random House India. Production delays due to coronavirus disease 2019 will require the April 2020 launch date to be rescheduled. (See Cover.)

Readers of Evidence-Based Oncology™ (EBO) will recognize Patel as an associate editor and contributing author. Patel is a medical oncologist/hematologist and the chief executive officer of Carolina Blood and Cancer Care Associates, based in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Having grown up in India and practiced medicine on 3 continents, he has devoted tremendous personal time and travel to nourish his interest in world religions and cultures—particularly to gain insight into the universal human experience of death.

Falls, married to one of Patel’s colleagues, died within months of a diagnosis of lung and liver cancer. Yet, amid the challenges of his illness, Falls was incredibly fortunate. He had the rare opportunity to discuss his questions about death with Patel, a physician and friend who was exceptionally well-equipped to help Falls prepare for what the aviator called his “ultimate and infinite journey.” Throughout the last months of Falls’ life, the pair met weekly to examine death from multiple vantage points: physical, emotional, relational, cultural, and spiritual—religious–philosophical. Their encounters provide the foundation of Between Life and Death.

Patel’s medical facility was well-designed for conversations with Falls. The doctor explains, “My clinic, Carolina Blood and Cancer Care, was founded on a holistic approach to the treatment of cancer. We constructed the building with a U-shaped design that allowed all patients to look out onto a healing garden with a gazebo topped by a golden dome. When weather permitted, patients could receive their chemotherapy treatments outside on the patio or under the dome. It wasn’t just for the patient’s comfort. During difficult discussions, a quick glance at the garden in bloom or the smile of a patient resting in the sun grounded me, put life in perspective, and reminded me of my mission of service.” Patel’s clinic was an early adopter of the patient-centered cancer care model designed to serve holistic needs of patients, with a focus on palliative care.1 As described previously in EBO, Carolina Blood and Cancer Care Associates has been one of the most successful practices in the country in executing alternative payment models (APMs), which gives practices more support to help patients with advanced care planning.1,2 But when Patel and Falls were having their conversations years ago, these ideas were still new, and support systems like the one that Patel created for Falls were harder to find.

The healing garden is the recurring setting where readers of Between Life and Death will vicariously accompany Falls along his journey toward death. Pondering his grim diagnosis, Falls decides not to pursue chemotherapy or any other treatments, because they would involve diffi cult adverse eff ects and would be unlikely to prolong his life significantly. “After evaluating where I stand and how I’ve lived all these years, I feel it would be best for me to start packing my bags for the ultimate and infinite journey. … God blessed me with a life that I have no regrets over … Let’s face it, Doc. From everything you’ve told me, treating my cancer is like trying to save an exploding plane in mid-air. Chances are it’s not going to happen. … I think of it like I’ve just received an upgrade on a long fl ight. I’ve collected so many miles that God has granted me a charter flight to a destination unknown. Now the only issue is the waiting time.”

Doctors have debated for more than 20 years on how to engage cancer patients in the decision-making conversation once they have reached the terminal stage.3 The culture of care in the United States suggests that Falls is an exception, with language around treatment calling on patients to “fight” cancer even when it cannot be cured. A 2019 study of 20 women with metastatic breast cancer found that “patients’ definition of a good compassionate doctor was one who gives positive news and leaves room for hope.”4 Another study published last year found that 28% of patients with imminently fatal colorectal cancer received treatment , even though this can prevent palliative care.5

Patel writes, “Even when I was seeing patients with very advanced cases where I knew they were better off dying peacefully than going through the pains of chemotherapy, which bought them maybe a few more weeks, almost every patient I came across was adamant about hoping for a miracle. But Harry was different.”

Falls decides he will not pursue extraordinary measures to avoid death, but he has an extraordinary curiosity about the dying process, which Patel strives to appease. Upon receiving his terminal diagnosis, Falls says, “Doc, I’m not a religious or ritualistic individual. I’m somewhere between a non-believer and an agnostic. But I have some fundamental existential queries that are haunting me. … I want to know how death has been defined all these millennia. How do people die? Did our ancestors understand death in a similar fashion to our understanding? How did they treat the bodies after death? How was this diff erent across cultures? What about the afterlife? What is a good death, or rather, what does it mean to die well? I can handle a mid-air somersault and navigate the worst turbulence. But I am totally incapable of even remotely imagining my own mortality and afterlife.”

Patel responds, “I wish everyone facing death, which is in fact everyone someday, would spend time thinking about these questions.”

Patel comes to the conversations with immense cross-cultural knowledge. The reader is drawn in by poignant stories of a doctor and his terminal cancer patients, which stimulate Falls’ discernment about how to spend his final days meaningfully, and about disposition of his body after death. For example, Patel introduces the Indian custom of a funeral pyre, and describes how he fulfi lled the traditional ceremonial role of igniting his brother’s funeral pyre. He explains beliefs and rituals associated with death in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Australia, and in Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Catholicism, evangelical Christianity, and Islam. He delves into topics not normally covered in a physician’s training, such as the human soul, possibilities for an afterlife, and the meaning of suffering.

Although his cancer is not cured, Falls satisfies his human need to prepare for a peaceful death. Readers will not want to put the book aside until they learn how Harry’s story ends.

Patel’s purpose for writing Between Life and Death, described in an interview with EBO, is to prompt communal and personal preparation for a profound human experience that is unavoidable, yet—paradoxically—too seldom a subject of open conversation. Patel thinks humans will have more meaningful and comfortable experiences of death if their community does not treat death as a taboo subject, or an event to be delayed through extreme, often painful measures that yield meager improvement in longevity or quality of life. He writes:

I see it every day; patients in their last few days enduring horrifi cally painful therapies when we have already informed them that the end result of that dreadful suff ering will be maybe two or three more weeks of life spent in agonizing pain. The pain and the therapy do not allow them to spend time with their loved ones or enjoy the comforts of life. Those few weeks are spent chained to a hospital bed. We are too willing, it seems, to bargain away quality time with those we love and freedom from debilitating pain in exchange for fourteen to twenty-one more days on earth. And in that last leg of the marathon, instead of preparing and planning for a graceful and pain-free departure surrounded by those we hold dearest, we prefer to ruin those last, most precious moments in pursuit of a farfetched cure, ensuring that the final days we spend on earth are the most miserable of our entire lives. It is this fate that, as a physician who has been at the deathbed of countless numbers of my patients, I want to help people avoid.”

As Patel shares stories of his deceased patients, it’s evident that they have benefi ted from a highly attentive physician. He accepts their calls to his cell phone at all hours; he visits their homes; he attends their funerals. Readers who have struggled to schedule appointments with their physicians may be astonished at the generosity of the time spent with Falls. Yet, from an ethical perspective, Between Life and Death raises serious systemic concerns about empowering patients to exercise genuine informed consent. How much is informed consent for end-of-life decisions undermined—or impossible—for countless patients who begin the dying process as Falls did, but never have the opportunities for education and reflection that he received?

Like Harry Falls, many patients, caregivers, and medical professionals lack guidance or opportunity to prepare existentially for the dying process before they are thrust into it. In the era of quality metrics in healthcare, the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network has developed a measure for comprehensive palliative care that includes relief of existential or spiritual distress, which can be as burdensome as physical pain.6 Guidelines from both the National Comprehensive Cancer Network7 and the Healthcare Chaplaincy Network call for palliative care to begin well before a terminal patient is admitted to hospice care. Patel has previously published critiques of the medical profession’s insufficient training for managing the holistic needs of dying patients.8 In Between Life and Death, he says, “End-of-life discussions are the most difficult part of my job”; yet, repeatedly, he states that nothing in his medical school training prepared him for this role.

That structured medical education largely neglects end-of-life-discussions might be considered tolerable for physicians who are less responsible for delivering terminal diagnoses—but certainly not for an oncologist. In the interview with EBO, Patel was asked whether skills for conducting end-of-life-discussions can be eff ectively taught to medical professionals. Patel said he thinks that improvements in structured training are certainly possible and much needed. He has sought this training for himself—for example, by becoming a certified trainer of physicians through the Education in Palliative and End-of-Life Care program affiliated with Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.9

Mindful of the losses Patel has endured with his dying patients, Falls and other characters in Between Life and Death ask him questions such as, “Doc, how do you keep doing this?” … “Don’t you ever get burned out … from doing this over and over again?” … “Does dealing with death not affect you, your personal life?” Research indicates that these are precisely the sorts of questions medical professionals should be taking seriously. Burnout, trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and struggles with work—life balance are more common in the medical profession than many realize.10-12

At several points in his book, Patel notes that professionals like himself are expected to “remain emotionally detached” or to “rein in [their] personal emotions” when engaging with patients, but he “had never been fully successful” at doing so. But why should professional “success” be measured by the criterion of emotional detachment? Those who approach death from a more pastoral or therapeutic perspective will be concerned that medical professionals like Patel need healthy ways to process their human emotions. Patel admits to Falls, “As an oncologist it’s always been my job to guide patients through their own grief. I can’t burden people facing death themselves with my own sorrows at death’s hands. I try not to burden even my own family and try to shelter even my dear wife from it. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night questioning my own judgment about what I have learned. I should thank you … I rarely have an outlet for my own grief.”

When asked about available resources to facilitate and de-stigmatize emotional supports for medical professionals who experience grief, depression, trauma, PTSD, or stress and exhaustion related to care for dying patients, Patel agreed that “a lot more could be done” in all these areas. In Between Life and Death, Patel describes instances when he found himself tragically torn between special events with his family and untimely requests to tend to dying patients. On one occasion when called to the bedside of a dying patient, Patel felt compelled to cancel plans to attend the wedding of a daughter of one of his best friends. He asks for forgiveness from his wife who is left to attend the wedding alone. While these struggles are not unique to the medical profession, mission-driven medical providers in high-stress roles should have supportive employment structures that allow them to maintain their physical, emotional, and spiritual health—which Patel’s practice has pursued with a team-based approach, supported with APMs.

Between Life and Death is an accessible narrative that will be marketed for broad readership. Patel writes that he hopes this project will contribute to transforming cultural attitudes and institutions, such that planning for “a smooth, graceful and celebratory death and departure” is no more unusual or taboo than preparation for birth. This book is an excellent choice for professional development and personal enrichment. Beyond obvious audiences, such as medical professionals, grief therapists, and chaplains, it could be a powerful selection for community book clubs, or as an interdisciplinary shared reading assignment for first-year university students. Patel models a mature level of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and interfaith literacy which, ideally, should be more the norm than the exception. To reach the broadest possible audience, Between Life and Death could be transformed into an outstanding theatrical production or screenplay—with the healing garden at center stage.Author Information

Kashyap B. Patel, MD, is a medical oncologist and hematologist who serves as chief executive officer of Carolina Blood and Cancer Care Associates in Rock Hill, SC. He is a national leader in clinical trials, precision medicine, the use of biosimilars, state and federal legislative affairs, and healthcare management. Patel has been an independent contractor for Palmetto GBA and currently serves as vice president of the Community Oncology Alliance and as a trustee of the Association of Community Cancer Centers.

Reviewer Information

Florence Caffrey Bourg, PhD, is an adjunct faculty member in the Loyola Institute for Ministry, New Orleans, LA, where she developed multimedia materials and the course textbook for Spirituality, Morality, and Ethics, a required course for graduate and certifi cate students training in the LIM program for various ministries, including hospital chaplaincy. She received her PhD in theology, with specialization in ethics, from Boston College, and is the author of Where Two or Three Are Gathered: Christian Families as Domestic Churches (University of Notre Dame Press, 2004).References

1. Patel K, Patel M, Gor A, et al. Oncology practice transformation helps deliver patient-centered cancer care in a community oncology practice. Am J Manag Care. 2018;24(5 Spec No):SP147-SP148.

2. Patel K, Patel M, Lavender T, et al. Two-sided risk in the Oncology Care Model. Am J Manag Care. 2019;25(6 Spec No):SP216-SP220.

3. Asai A. Should physicians tell patients the truth?.West J Med. 1995;163(1):36-39.

4. Bergqvist J, Strang P. Breast cancer preferences for truth versus hope are dynamic and change during late lines of palliative chemotherapy. J Pain Symptom Manag. 2019;57(4):746-752.£doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2018.12.336.

5. Sineshaw HM, Jemal A, Ng K, et al. Treatment patterns among de novo metastatic cancer patients who died within 1 month of diagnosis. JNCI Cancer Spectr. 2019;3(2):pkz021. doi: 10.1093/jncics/pkz021.

6. What is quality spiritual care in healthcare and how do you measure it? website. healthcarechaplaincy.org/docs/research/quality_indicators_document_1_16_2020.pdf. Published January 16, 2020. Accessed

March 24, 2020.

7. Dans M, Smith T, Back A, et al. NCCN Guidelines Insights: Palliative Care, version 2.2017. J Natl Compr Canc Netw. 2017;15(8):989-997. doi:10/6004/jnccn.2017.0132.

8. Patel K, Kruczynski M. Palliative and end-of-life care: issues, challenges, and possible solutions in the United States. Am J Manag Care. 2015;21(6):SP195-SP196.

9. Home page. Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities at Northwestern University website. bioethics.northwestern.edu/. Accessed March 24, 2020.

10. Lazarus A. Traumatized by practice: PTSD in physicians. J Med Pract Manage. 2014;30(2):131-134.

11. Jackson TN, Morgan JP, Jackson DL, et al. The crossroads of posttraumatic stress disorder and physician burnout: a national review of United States trauma and nontrauma surgeons. Am Surg. 2019;85(2):127-135.

12. Cooper B, DeVries J. Promoting staff well-being and success: a work-life balance team initiative. Health Care Chaplaincy Network website.

healthcarechaplaincy.org/caring-for-the-human-spirit-presentations/conference-2018-presentations.html. Presentation at: 5th Annual Caring for the Human Spirit Conference; April 23-25, 2018. See also collected resources on stress and burnout in the medical profession at Stanford Medicine’s WellMD website: wellmd.stanford.edu/healthy/stress.html.