A Chance to Cut
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A Chance to Cut

My gloved hand reaches for progressively sharper surgical instruments. The prior radiation therapy and recurrent cancer [End Page E3] have made his neck tissues as stiff and hard as an old block of wood; everything appears too dull and feels too dry under the bright operating room lights. I push, dissect, urge, divide, prod, and spread with little effect.

The nursing staff keeps to its routine—completing computer entries, retrieving supplies, counting sponges—only intermittently aware that things are not going well at the point of attack. Nondescript music plays softly and the anesthesia machine continues to emit its gentle sounds. The junior resident—assisting me with the first of many neck dissections she will see during her five years of training—grips the retractor as she has been told and dabs the wound periodically to clear any blood or fluid.

I glance up to recheck the CT scan. It confirms that this man’s recurrent cancer is just below the next layer of neck muscles. There are also some large blood vessels and major nerves nearby. I am confident, though, that I will be able to expose the mass, protect all of the critical structures, and safely remove the cancer.

Curing cancer with surgery is no small feat, mind you. Cancer is, after all, a molecular disease not easily confined to an obvious lump, even though we sometimes refer to a malignant mass being “like a walnut” or “as hard and round as a marble.” The actual disease rests deep inside each cancer cell where the genetic code—the DNA—makes mistake–after–mistake. If cancer is to be cured with a surgical procedure, the surgeon must remove every last cell that is capable of making the same nonsensical, life–threatening error. Given Science’s rudimentary knowledge of cancer cell dynamics and signaling, it’s a miracle that surgery ever works. Yet, we continue to try. And we succeed just often enough to keep on trying.

I rearrange the retractors and alter my approach. My mentors would have known what to do next, I imagine. My training included time well–spent with brilliant and technically–gifted surgeons. How would they have approached this case? Their experience and instincts might have told them to open the wound more widely, work the lateral and deep margins first, or position the instruments differently.

Perhaps, one of my mentors would have attacked this man’s tumor using the same approach I am attempting but would have known exactly where to exploit some area of weakness that I cannot locate. A few swift, confident moves and he would have held the mass in his hands. “That’s it. We’re done,” he would have said.

I met this patient several months ago when his cancer was first discovered and have seen him throughout his course of treatment. Recently, his daughter had accompanied him to the office to review his options. “Treatment has been rugged, Doc,” he reminded me. “The cancer’s still there and they said I can’t get any more radiation. Chemo would only prolong things. I don’t really want surgery, but what choice do I have if I want to be cured?”

“Supportive care is an option, but the only curative approach is surgery.”

“Well, I’m not ready to quit yet, Doc. I got grand-kids, y’know. I want to watch them grow up.” He nodded to his daughter. “I’m in charge of spoiling her little boys.”

The daughter smiled. We crowded around the computer screen to look at the scans. I showed them how the tumor was invading and destroying surrounding structures. I described the surgery and the risks.

“There are many things I will not know about your tumor until we are actually in the operating room,” I explained. Surgery in the setting of recurrent disease involves a series of on–the–spot decisions and course corrections. The odds of success are unknowable. “Sometimes, the only way to find out if we can remove the cancer is simply to try.”

He took a deep breath and looked at his daughter. “Well then, Doc, if surgery is the only...