Oncologist-blogger wants patients to understand their cancer
Andrew Howard, a radiation oncologist at UI Hospital, was frustrated by how little his patients knew about their cancer.
“They didn’t know the difference between chemotherapy and radiology, or why we made the treatment recommendations we did,” he said. “One patient was convinced that hot sauce caused cancer, and was really upset that she had gotten cancer because she had gone out of her way to avoid hot sauce all of her life.”
His solution: “Cancer Ninja!,” a blog he started in May and updates each Tuesday. Illustrated with his cartoons, the blog is subtitled “A doctor fighting cancer, one drawing at a time.”
Originally he planned to write a book, but that project fell by the wayside after three or four chapters. His wife noticed him drawing dinosaurs with their two little girls — “I really enjoyed that, although I’ve never taken art classes,” Howard said — “and she suggested combining my interest in drawing with helping my patients understand.”
He created a breast cancer patient named Jane Doe. The blog posts start with her diagnosis, proceed through her treatment and show what it’s like to be a cancer survivor.
“I also want to follow a patient who doesn’t survive and show what happens in hospice,” he said.
Breast cancer is a good model because it’s so common and physicians know more about treating it than prostate, lung, colorectal or other cancers, he said.
“My aunt says, ‘Make it more snarky.’”
Howard works cartoons into his blog posts as often as he can. “My wife says there are too many words.” He’s studying books about cartooning in hopes of improving his technique. A look at “Cancer Ninja!” will show that he’s already pretty good.
Howard’s patients “really like” the blog, he said. “I have family and friends who are cancer survivors,” he said. “My aunt says, ‘Make it more snarky.’”
Explaining his job, Howard said, “There are three ways to treat cancer. Surgeons cut it out, there are chemotherapy and drugs, and radiation oncologists zap cancer with X-rays.
“So I’m a zapper.”
He likes the technology and “nerdy work” involved in his job. And he likes his patients. “They are people at a pivotal point in their lives,” Howard said. “They’re good people to talk to, and as a rule they are very nice people.”
He contrasts them with heart patients, who often are “all stressed out,” he said. “With cancer patients you usually don’t have that.”
From economics to medicine
Howard comes from Madison, Wisconsin. At the University of Wisconsin, he majored in economics. But a career in medicine beckoned. “My dad always urged me to take the biological requirements so I could be a doctor,” he said.
His first attempt to get into medical school was unsuccessful. He spent the next year taking classes to improve his GPA, reapplied and was accepted to the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. After medical school he spent a year as an intern in general internal medicine at the University of Washington hospitals in Seattle, then did a four-year residency in radiation oncology at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison. He joined UIC in 2010.
Howard lives in Hyde Park with his wife, a physician in family medicine at University of Chicago Hospital, and their two daughters.
He feels fortunate to have his job. When he started his second year of medical school, a buddy who’d spent the summer working in radiation oncology told their friends, “We’re all going into radiation oncology. It’s a great field.”
“I was the only one who did,” Howard said.