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JCO's Art of Oncology: a Window to the Human Endeavor of Caring for Patients

Sep 09, 2010

September 2010: Oncologists have an undeniably tough job. On top of having to understand extremely high-level science, they must also keep a stiff upper lip when faced with challenging and heart wrenching patient situations. The field of oncology isn’t all about the science; there’s a delicate art to answering the tough questions, delivering bad news, remaining empathetic but emotionally distant enough to carry out responsibilities. To illuminate all that goes on in oncologists’ heads and hearts, the Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO) has compiled a volume of heartfelt essays, Art of Oncology: Honest and Compassionate Responses to the Daily Struggles of People Living with Cancer.

Oncology professionals have submitted personal essays with perspectives on end-of-life issues, such as symptomatic and palliative care, to the JCO for more than a decade. The JCO receives about 75 such submissions per year and accepts about 15 for publication; of those accepted, which now total almost 170, the previous Consultant Editor Charles L. Loprinzi, MD, combed through for a selection of 30 that touched on a wide array of issues and that speak to a diverse audience including oncology professionals, patients, family members, caregivers and the general public.

To broaden the Art of Oncology’s reach to all of these audiences, JCO decided to turn the publication into an e-book available on the Amazon Kindle reader (available as well for BlackBerry, iPhone, iPad, and other devices). The articles are also available for free to ASCO members and non-members on JCO's site, but the e-book format delivers this information to those who may not be familiar with ASCO and JCO, to anyone who has dealt with cancer personally or through friends and family.   

The e-book is sold through Amazon.com, and according to the site, over 150 copies have been sold between the May 19th release and the end of August. Since the release, it has held a spot in the top 25 bestsellers in the oncology category. One reviewer touched by the emotive quality of the stories said, “These writings present voices of the physician experience that are sadly not heard often enough—perspectives that are authentic, sensitive, and truly focused on thoughtful delivery of patient care. They are a reminder that medicine is a profoundly human endeavor, predicated on one individual’s efforts to improve the life of another.”

(by Kelsey Parrish, Communication Department, ASCO)

New editorial oversight

Since the creation of the Art of Oncology book, Dr. Loprinzi has passed the reins as Editor of the Art of Oncology section in the Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO) to David P. Steensma, MD.  Previously, Dr. Steensma served as an Editorial Board Member for the Art of Oncology section for five years, frequently reviewing new submissions, and regularly submitting original works himself.

“Over the past 10-plus years, [Dr. Loprinzi’s] extraordinary efforts and good taste, coupled with the talents of the diverse group of writers who have contributed articles, have established the Art of Oncology section as an interesting and relevant component of the Journal,” Dr. Steensma said in an interview with ASCO Connection.

Since its inception, the section has expanded to address topics such as patient communication, ethics, and a wide array of survivorship issues from both the physician perspective and, at times, the patient perspective. According to Dr. Steensma, selections appearing in the column have broadened in scope and in format—a trend he would like to see continue. Published works have included “clever poems, displays of visual art, articulations of controversial viewpoints, social commentary as it relates to oncology practice, and heartfelt reflections on emotionally intense experiences,” he said.

According to Dr. Steensma, the clinical trial and observational data found elsewhere in JCO are relevant to clinical decision making, and the science of cancer biology not only increasingly affects practical applications but also is intrinsically interesting.  The Art of Oncology section, however, is vital to the Journal because “the human experience of caring for patients with cancer and interacting with people who are suffering is at the heart of what we do as physicians, and that is sometimes hard to see through the formal language of trial reports and scientific papers,” he said.  “Papers in the Art of Oncology bring these human considerations to the forefront.”

The human experience and emotional side of practicing oncology are further explored in several of the latest articles in Art of Oncology including Dr. Steensma’s own “A Cello for Michayla,” which is a reflection on a public outpouring of generosity inspired by a daughter’s musical attempt to aid in the healing of her mother.

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