David Andrews, veteran center for the New England Patriots, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, veteran Supreme Court Justice, have both been in recent newspaper headlines (in different sections of the paper, of course) due to their new medical diagnoses, “clots in the lung” for Andrews and “pancreatic cancer” for RBG. Most articles devote significant space to speculation about their prognoses, i.e. when can Andrews return to play in the NFL and will Ginsburg outlast Trump’s presidency? Why do the answers seem so elusive, and almost always end up with “it depends”?
“Clots in the lung” are pieces of blood clots that travel through the blood steam after breaking off from blood clots in the legs (deep vein thrombosis or DVT). In the lungs the clots can clog or drastically slow down the flow of blood through lung vessels and is called pulmonary embolism (PE). PE may often produce no symptoms or cause chest pain, cough, difficulty breathing, and sudden death.
PE is treated with so-called “blood thinners” aiming to reduce the risk of more emboli traveling to the lungs. Neither of the two classes of anti-coagulation drugs actually thin the blood. Both interfere with the multiple steps of coagulation needed to form a clot, thus reducing the chance of more pieces of clot breaking off and traveling to the lungs.
How long is drug treatment necessary? It depends. The shortest duration of 3-6 months is recommended for “provoked” PE, an embolism from a leg or pelvic clot provoked by an injury, surgery, infection, cancer, or other recognizable event. An “unprovoked” PE, one without a recognizable event, is usually treated for longer periods.
It is probable that Andrews’ PE was related to a football injury, a “provoked” PE, so that anti-coagulation treatment will last for at least 3-6 months. Hence he is out for the season, since it would be dangerous for him to play football with an intentionally defective blood clotting mechanism. If his PE was not the result of an injury, then it was “unprovoked” and treatment duration may be even longer.
RBG just completed treatment for her third bout of cancer. She was treated for colon cancer in 1999, “early” pancreatic cancer in 2009, and a cancer in her lung was surgically removed in December of 2018. This recent treatment consisted of 3 weeks of highly focussed radiation to a small malignant mass in the part of the pancreas (the “head”) that surrounds the bile duct that goes from the liver to the small intestine. A stent was placed in the bile duct presumably because even this highly focussed radiation could cause the duct to swell and obstruct resulting in her becoming jaundiced. Her doctors did not identify the mass as colon, lung, or pancreatic cancer, but reported that it was localized with “no evidence of cancer elsewhere”.
That last bit of news is significant since the prognosis of pancreatic cancer depends on the stage of disease, from 1 to 4. Stage 1, local disease, has a 5 year survival rate of 12-14% while Stage 4, widespread disease, has a 5 year survival rate of 1%. Survival rates are statistics based on the outcomes of hundreds of patients and can not be reliably applied to an individual patient. RBG has especially proved that herself. In a recent interview RBG remarked that “a certain Senator who predicted my early demise after my 2009 diagnosis of pancreatic cancer is now dead himself while I’m still alive.”
Because of the fallacy of applying the mortality statistics of hundreds of patients to an individual, the honest doctor realizes that a prognosis often can not be given accurately. That knowledge is also colored with the emotion of difficulty breaking bad news. One study showed that only about 37% of oncologists were able to give an “honest” prognosis to a cancer patient under treatment. When the doctor did give a prognosis, it was often overly optimistic.
So, what is the prognosis for Andrews and Ginsburg? It is relatively save to say that Andrews will not play NFL football this season and that Ginsburg, a champion statistic outlier for 86 years, will probably be sitting on the bench when the Supreme Court resumes in October. After that, who knows what will happen. The doctors may guess, but they don’t know either.