Understanding Your Patient’s Cancer Diagnosis

In my dream career, I work for about two years in every medical specialty. Yes, even psych. And colorectal surgery. I want to know everything there is to know about medicine and disease and how to treat it. Forget about the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none”, I want to be master of them all. Perhaps that is why I like the emergency department. While I’m certainly not highly specialized, I have the constant opportunity for continued learning in just about every area.

For nurse practitioners like me working in primary care, internal medicine, or the emergency department, we often find ourselves referring to specialists for conditions outside of our expertise. In the emergency department, for example, I may identify a probable osteosarcoma on X-ray but I refer to orthopedics or oncology as treating the condition is certainly not my area of expertise. Even though I won’t be the one following patients that I refer out, they understandably still have questions about their condition upon diagnosis. What are the next steps? Shrugging my shoulders isn’t a reassuring response.

Fortunately, for ‘jack of all trades’ nurse practitioners like me, MyCancerGenome.org, an online resource for medical providers, offers in-depth information about cancers from common to rare and their pathologies. The resource is geared toward giving medical providers a basic understanding of different genetic variations in cancer. So, when an established patient walks into your primary care clinic fresh off a visit to the oncologist and shoves a paper stating “Gastric cancer with HER2 mutation” demanding an explanation, you have recourse. MyCancerGenome.org gives the names of cancers along with data about their prevalence and types of genetic mutations. Where available, is outlines the agents appropriate for treatment of cancers based on their genetic mutations.

I had the chance to hang out with some of the MD-PhD students who contribute to the resource a few weeks ago at a conference. I was lucky when I could hang with their science talk. So, admittedly, the resource is a bit over my head in some cases, even as a molecular and cellular biology major. Analyzing cell signaling pathways isn’t something I do on a regular basis working in the emergency department. But, it was interesting to poke around the website and reminisce on my undergrad biology days and learn more about how cancer works. Some cancers listed in the online resource include robust descriptions and explanations of their pathology while other listings are spotty. So, My Cancer Genome may not be the best resource for helping all of your patients understand their cancer diagnosis but it will be useful for some. 

What other online resources do you use in your practice?

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