COMMENTARY

From Cancer to COVID: Is There a Fix for Willful Medical Ignorance?

H. Jack West, MD

Disclosures

August 23, 2021

The patient saw me for a second opinion after developing metastatic disease, but he'd initially been diagnosed with locally advanced non–small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). His oncologist had appropriately proposed treatment with concurrent chemoradiation followed by durvalumab. He listened to the rationale and the evidence, but he refused to pursue it, favoring alternative medicine instead.

A repeat scan several months later showed obvious progression. Even though it was potentially treatable — including with curative intent — he demurred again.

Several months down the line, he developed back pain heralding a new spinal metastasis. Only then did he accept that perhaps conventional, evidence-based anticancer therapy was worth pursuing. Of course, by that time the window of opportunity to treat with the hope of cure had closed.

But in other ways, it isn't too late for him. He can at least benefit from subsequent treatments for advanced NSCLC. Too many other patients I've seen have eschewed conventional medicine so long that their poor performance status precludes standard therapies that would have been effective had they pursued them as something other than a final act of desperation.

Corollaries to Coronavirus

Though this dynamic has existed for decades in oncology, the current rejection of the coronavirus vaccine, on a massive scale involving a significant minority of the US population, is a reflection of this same willful ignorance.

In 2008, I started a nonprofit organization — the Global Resource for Advancing Cancer Education — dedicated to providing free, timely, and credible information to cancer patients and caregivers around the world.

It was based on the premise that if the lay public had access to the best information — in other words, the same content that informs experts and defines optimal patient management — patients would then be able to pursue these treatments to the extent that they were broadly available. And although this service and a growing number of similar efforts have since generated a virtual army of sophisticated patients (who have since become an important force in and of themselves), it has been humbling to recognize that this approach can't help the many people who denigrate the very pursuit of evidence-based medicine.

The widespread rejection of COVID vaccines brings this into high relief for a couple of reasons. First, the selfishness of those who reject the vaccine affects not only the individual who makes that choice but the broader public. Their decision not only puts them at risk but also the unwitting person exposed to them later. At least with cancer, poor choices only affect those making them.

Another reason that COVID vaccination is such a flashpoint: everyone, including every public figure, now makes a public declaration of their support or suspicion of science and evidence-based medicine. And we are seeing an alarming fraction of people with access to very good information rejecting the evidence and our best opportunity to control the pandemic.

I am particularly disheartened that those who reject the science aren't prone to change their views with better educational efforts. I recognize that there is a spectrum of resistance and that some of our colleagues have convinced family members and patients to reverse their prior anti-vaccine stance; but I wish it wasn't so hard to overcome people's biases against the establishment — biases that lead not only to self-harm but danger to the broader public.

We need to do more to understand what leads people to reject science, because it's clearly not just ignorance and lack of better information. We have to recognize that this phenomenon is now a leading bottleneck in the progress of modern medicine, both in oncology and other settings.

I would love to learn what others think, including successes and more optimistic views — or to simply vent your frustrations with these issues.

H. Jack West, MD, associate clinical professor and executive director of employer services at City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center in Duarte, California, regularly comments on lung cancer for Medscape. Dr West serves as web editor for JAMA Oncology, edits and writes several sections on lung cancer for UpToDate, and leads a wide range of continuing education programs and other educational programs, including hosting the audio podcast West Wind.

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