- Consenting for Novel and Dangerous Surgical Procedures with Minimal Supporting Evidence
Frank1 was a 19–year–old man referred to me after a workup for back pain led to the discovery of a large, aggressive tumor in his sacrum. The tumor wrapped around the nerves controlling bowel, bladder, and leg function. We performed a needle biopsy and learned that the tumor was an angiosarcoma, an extremely aggressive and usually deadly form of cancer. However, the tumor was unique in that it theoretically could be cured if removed in one piece. But, to do so would necessitate sacrificing the nerves, leaving the patient irreversibly incontinent, lacking sexual function, and confined to a wheelchair.
Once we knew the diagnosis, Frank came to the office with his family to discuss treatment options. He appeared terrified and was almost silent through the appointment, deferring most questions to his parents. Due to the speed of tumor growth, we discussed palliative therapy, conventional treatment, and the one–piece or “en bloc” surgery, which was new and unproven for his disease. Based on the remarkable tumor growth we noted during the work–up, with palliative treatment the patient would likely survive for less than six months. Conventional treatment, in which surgery is done to remove part of the tumor while sparing the nerves to bowel and bladder function, was known to have a high rate of recurrence and death. Further, this tumor didn’t respond well to radiation and chemotherapy, so chance of survival was limited, although his life might have been extended for a short period. Thus our conversation turned to the novel “en bloc” procedure.
The en bloc procedure offered a hope of long–term survival unlike the other options. However, this came with an enormous cost. The surgery itself would be planned to occur over three days with five separate surgical teams and a very real chance of major complications or death. Nerves to bowel and bladder would be cut, irreversibly leaving the patient without sexual function, and completely incontinent with a urinary catheter and colostomy. Walking was expected to be disrupted or potentially impossible due to the nerve resection. We went to great lengths over the course of many visits to describe the impact of the surgery on the patient’s function, and the impact on his quality of life. To make matters more challenging, as this procedure was so new and the tumor so rare, research did not yet exist to quantify his likelihood of long–term survival.
Personally I was very uncomfortable with the situation. From a medical standpoint, the surgery offered was the best distillation of research and professional experience. En bloc surgery offered the best—if not the only—chance for survival in [End Page 5] this young man. Additionally, having treated many spine–injured patients I was aware that many patients with similar deficits led happy and productive lives following an emotional and physical adjustment period. However the surgery was also extreme. I worried that we would not be able to accomplish the goal of a one–piece resection and would accidentally spill some of the tumor, creating all of the deficits but no survival benefit. Frankly, I thought there was a 25% chance that would happen, which was explained to the family preoperatively. Were we overreaching our abilities and making a dying patient’s life worse by proceeding?
Second, I was uneasy about the social situation. The patient’s family was very supportive, traveling with him to all appointments and assisting with his care. The patient himself usually deferred all scheduling to his mother, which wasn’t entirely unusual for such a young man. However it was difficult to grasp how much the patient understood of his disease or supported the plan. We attempted to delve more deeply into his thoughts, including without his parents present, but got only short answers, which revealed little. While the family appeared to have accepted the diagnosis and wanted to get to the business of treatment, the patient seemed to me to still carry the shock of his recent cancer diagnosis. Pushed by the rapid tumor growth, we were limited in how long we could wait for...