Jul 22, 2021
Dr. Ben Corn, professor of Oncology at Hebrew University of Jerusalem Medical School, and deputy director of the Shaare Zedek Medical Center, discusses his current research with NRG Oncology and SWOG on the study of the science of hope, and it's role as a mediator in well-being and health care improvement. Dr. Corn is co-founder and CEO of the NGO, Life's Door, which teaches health professionals, patients and others strategies for hope, meaning and well-being throughout illness and at the end-of-life.
ASCO Daily News: Welcome to the ASCO Daily News Podcast. I'm Geraldine Carroll, a reporter for the ASCO Daily News. Our guest today is Dr. Benjamin Corn, a professor of oncology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Medical School and deputy director of the Shaare Zedek Medical Center. Dr. Corn is the co-founder and chairman of the nonprofit organization Life's Door, which teaches health professionals, patients, and caregivers strategies for hope, meaning, and well-being throughout illness and at the end of life.
Dr. Corn was honored with the 2021 ASCO Humanitarian Award and joins me to discuss his work, including his current research on the study of the science of hope and its role as a mediator in well-being and health care improvement. Dr. Corn's full disclosures are available in our show notes, and transcripts for all episodes are available at asco.org/podcasts.
Dr. Corn, it's great to have you on the podcast.
Dr. Benjamin Corn: It's a pleasure to be here, and thank you very much, Geraldine.
ASCO Daily News: Dr. Corn, can you tell us about the experiences early on in your personal life and then your medical training that prompted your interest in helping patients find hope and meaning while navigating cancer treatment?
Dr. Benjamin Corn: Sure. I think everyone has a story that sent them on their way for a career in medicine, which for many of us is not a job. It's not a career. It's a mission. My personal story had to do with losing a parent, my dad, at a very young age. He died of prostate cancer, left behind three young children and a lovely widow, who was my mom. And I was quite disappointed with the way the system tried to cope with the reality that was now forced upon us. There were no viable options for somebody with metastatic prostate cancer then. But yet, there was not a cognizance of some of the psychological trauma that we would all have in trying to navigate our daily lives.
And I was very surprised also the way my dad's death was communicated to the family. And I've spoken about this in a variety of podcast settings and written a piece for the JCO narrative section about 10 years ago on that, some of what I found to be harshness, coldness of telling us that our dad was not going to make it and how the bad news was conveyed (PMID: 24733795). And so, with that, I was an 11-year-old child, and I very much was intent on curing this thing called prostate cancer to make sure other middle-aged men wouldn't suffer from it, and their families wouldn't have to pick up the pieces.
And I went to medical school. I entered my residency in oncology at University of Pennsylvania, thinking that that was my destiny. And when I got to the wards, I was quite disillusioned because I saw a variety of scenarios that told me things hadn't changed drastically in 7 or 8 years since losing my dad and initiating my medical studies. I saw many cases of senior attending physicians, who were fantastic scientists, brilliant researchers, and yet didn't seem to pay enough attention to the subtleties of making sure that a family was whole, bringing in other resources.
This was right before what I would call a palliative care revolution. We didn't have the Tamil paper, the Zimmermann paper, the Bakitas paper. And we didn't really know the value of early interventions with teams that included not only oncologists but also nurses and psychologists, chaplains, who could help navigate such a difficult period for patients and for the people in the concentric circles around those patients.
So it was very important for me to begin to explore those issues. I never found it to be a conflict for pursuing an academic career that asks bread-and-butter questions about disease, areas of interest. I published a lot in gynecologic malignancy, in prostate cancer itself, and in central nervous system tumors. But by the same token, I thought it was very important to be looking at the psychosocial dynamics that are involved. And that's pretty much the genesis of how I got interested in this area.
ASCO Daily News: Well, your work integrating hopefulness into cancer care has had an important impact even on communities beyond the medical setting. Can you tell us about this work, about the hope enhancement model, and how you've used this approach to train medical professionals, patients, and caregivers?
Dr. Benjamin Corn: Well, first of all, I want to say that, in many ways, even though I've been blessed with having terrific education at outstanding institutions of higher learning, my greatest teachers have really been the patients, and I'll bet you most colleagues would say the same thing. And I noticed there was a subset of patients who were very intuitively aware of what was important to them, patients for whom the prognosis was very bleak and yet managed to maintain hopefulness. And I saw that the common thread for these patients was that, even though they couldn't be hopeful for cure, they could still find other goals, other objectives that they could pursue.
And that sent me on a quest of sorts to see if anybody had formally tried teaching people how to become more hopeful. And with not too much effort, I found literature of Professor Rick Snyder from University of Kansas. It basically modeled this notion of hope theory. And without turning this into a lecture, very briefly, Snyder said that there are three conditions that will allow hopefulness to thrive.
The first is defining a goal. And by that, he meant some kind of an objective that was not only plausible but also that could provide meaning in one's life. So it would be a good goal in hope theory if I said my goal is to win the lottery tomorrow because that's really not anything I can have an impact on, so it's not really statistically plausible.
But likewise, if I took a goal that was just very mundane and didn't add that much purpose to my life, it would be out there, and I'd be interested in pursuing it. But I probably wouldn't have the same degree of motivation if I thought about something that, without too much effort, could really make my day or make the day of the people around me. So, the first thing was the goals that have these two criteria--plausibility and meaning.
The second is a pathway to get to the goal. And when Snyder discusses pathways of thinking, he's supposedly speaking to a mature audience and saying none of us were born yesterday. We all realize that on almost every path that we travel on during our lifetimes, we see that there are obstacles. The question is, how do we manage and circumvent those obstacles, or how do we dance with those obstacles if, in fact, it's something very much within me, an obstacle such as anger, an obstacle such as jealousy? How do I deal with those particular factors? A hopeful person is a creative person, is a resourceful person, who finds a way to sally forth even when these obstacles are out there.
So we have goals. We have pathways. And finally, the other secret sauce that I mentioned before is motivation. The word that Snyder used for motivation is called "agency." Agentic thinking, like almost an agent that might represent an NBA basketball player or a Hollywood movie star. That agent will do everything on behalf of his or her colleague so that they'll succeed. And so to the person who has an agentic way of seeing the world is going to be an activist, is going to want to set out on those trails, those pathways, to reach those goals. So those are the three components.
And what we found is that--and this is based on some work that was done by one of Snyder's proteges, Dr. David Feldman, who's at Santa Clara University--one could actually construct workshops that are very palatable, that take less than 2 hours to conduct, in which a tool called hope mapping is used. Hope maps are basically dependent on those three components. So you can actually sit there in dyads, buddying up with people in this workshop, people who you know before the workshop, or people who you meet in the workshop, because there's a similarity, a selection for those who attend such workshops. People want to work together.
And it's a wonderful energy, because let's say, as I said before, I have a goal, and I have a pathway. But there's a big, bad obstacle there, and I don't know how to get around it. What could be that my buddy in the workshop is going to say, "You know what, Ben? Here's a great way. You might not have thought about this. Why don't we contemplate creating a workaround?" And they're very, very instructive.
And we've done some of these workshops now, both in Israel, where I practice, as you mentioned at the opening, and with colleagues at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore with really thought leaders in hopefulness--Tom Smith, who has for many years written the ASCO guidelines on palliative care, and Anna Ferguson, who is the coordinator of the hope enhancement program at Hopkins. And together, we've proven, especially in a population of women suffering from stage IV breast cancer, that we really can invest 2 hours or less and make them much more hopeful.
Now, you mentioned in your question that some of this has an impact on communities beyond the medical setting, and that's exactly what's been happening. As the word has trickled out, especially during the COVID pandemic, we've been approached by a variety of communities on the international level--communities in London, communities in Athens, communities in South Africa, communities in the Pacific Rim--who are very interested in bringing together different strata within those communities, perhaps people who have recently become married or people who have recently become parents, who have a similar set of struggles, and to help us help them become more hopeful, especially when you add on to that a little something called COVID-19.
So I'm an oncologist. I think there's tremendous upside for this in the setting of cancer care for patients and for the health care professionals who have the privilege of treating these patients. But the spillover phenomenon has really been marvelous to behold, especially during 2020.
ASCO Daily News: Well, you're also collaborating with the National Cancer Institute groups of NRG Oncology and the Southwest Oncology Group to study the science of hope and its role as a mediator in well-being and health care improvement. Can you tell us about this research?
Dr. Benjamin Corn: Sure. So in the context of NRG Oncology, there are two protocols. One is called CC003 (NCT02635009). That's a protocol for patients with small cell lung cancer. And another one is a protocol called BN005, which is a protocol for individuals with, I guess, what we want to call low-grade gliomas, to look at neuroanatomic loci that could constitute a source for hopefulness (NCT03180502).
I'll just give you one example, which is from the small cell lung cancer study I mentioned before. So in years past, at least, it's been a standard of care to provide prophylactic cranial irradiation--that is, prevention with radiation--where there's a tumor, small cell lung cancer, that has a proclivity to spread to the brain. And so one of the hot areas that has emerged in radiation research over the last decade is hippocampal avoidance. It seems trivial, but it took us a while to understand how to protect concentric circles, such as, let's say, the spinal cord when treating the vertebral body or to protect the hippocampus when treating the whole brain.
So in prophylactic cranial irradiation, we typically treat the whole brain. And a randomized trial was developed by NRG investigators, where the randomization was between prophylactic cranial irradiation itself to 25 Gray in 10 fractions versus that same regimen with hippocampal avoidance.
Now, when I saw that study design, I actually put forward the idea that this could be a wonderful model to study the neuroanatomic correlative hopefulness because there are several candidate anatomic structures in the brain, which are thought to be associated with hopefulness. No one, by the way, is saying that the circuitry is so primitive that all of hopefulness resides in one structure. But if I had to say that there's a lead candidate that's been identified in the literature, it's exactly the hippocampus.
So the proposal to the NRG committee and to the PI of the protocol, Dr. Vinai Gondi, and the head of the brain tumor committee, Dr. Minesh Mehta, was, could we very simply administer one of the validated scales for hopefulness that was built by Snyder. It has all of 12 questions. It takes about 5 minutes to complete. Give that to a patient at baseline, then have them randomly assigned to either prophylactic cranial irradiation of the whole brain or the same treatment wherein the hippocampus is protected.
Re-challenge the patients 6 months after the irradiation is completed, and see if there is less of a decrement in hopefulness on these validated scales among the group that had the hippocampus protected. When you compare the hopefulness among the groups that didn't have the hippocampus protected, that would offer some interesting, at least circumstantial, evidence that the hippocampus is implicated in the hope pathways.
And so this has been very interesting to NRG Oncology. We've enrolled now over 250 patients en route to 300 patients. We have very meticulous quality assurance, where the co-investigators sit down once a month and make sure that the hippocampus was properly contoured and protected.
And in the other study, we're looking at particular dosimetric analyses in case someone thinks that 25 Gray might be, for instance, below the threshold of hippocampal tolerance. There, we'll look at a variety of doses to see where we might see the correlation with hippocampal toxicity and decrements in hopefulness. So those are two variations of ideas that are on burners in NRG Oncology.
SWOG has taken a different tack. And here, I want to truly applaud SWOG leadership, the group chair of SWOG, Dr. Charles Blanke, as well as the leaders in the palliative care movement at SWOG, including Mark O'Rourke, Marie Bakitas, and Ishwaria Subbiah, who have said, "Look, we know that you've got some preliminary pilot data on the impact of a hope workshop for patients with cancer. Can we, first of all, look at this now among the SWOG investigators?"
That had never been done before. In other words, we talk all the time about levels of burnout among health care providers who are treating a patient with cancer. It's very gratifying on the one hand, but it's very challenging on the other hand. It can even be demoralizing for some, and as you know, there are very high rates of burnout.
So they've been very interested, first of all, in meticulously establishing levels of hopefulness at baseline and correlating that with levels of burnout among SWOG investigators. So by "investigators," I'm talking about physicians, nursing professionals, even patient advocates. And we have some data that were just recently published in JCO Oncology Practice (DOI: 10.1200/OP.20.00990). In addition, we've been very interested in offering now these hope enhancement workshops that I told you about before to the SWOG investigators.
So in the month of May, we got together every Monday night--at least for me, it was Monday night at midnight, I have to say, which was about 5:00 PM Eastern time. And we did these 2-hour workshops every week for about a dozen SWOG investigators. And we actually have some data right now that we just submitted to the ASCO Quality Conference, showing the feedback we got from the SWOG investigators.
And to me, the most encouraging part was that these investigators were so enamored of these techniques and found them to be so useful that they--almost all wanted to find ways to bring them into their own clinical environment to share them with their patients, wanted to learn how to become facilitators of such workshops to also help prophylax burnout and increase hopefulness among their colleagues. So SWOG has taken the tack of using this intervention to help providers.
We're soon going to be trying to do it among the patients and roll it on to our protocols. And there, what we want to do is take meaty, challenging questions. Let's say the question of adherence, a situation where perhaps women who need endocrine therapy are somewhat--want to take the endocrine therapy but are somewhat reluctant to be adherent to the regimen because of all the hormonal side effects.
So we want to see if we can use our workshop to align this value of a patient and this motivation with the patient to help them, in fact, become very adherent, because as I'm sure you know, upwards of 40% of these patients just don't want to take these therapies. So we're interested in using this for adherence.
And we're also interested in using it as a tool for medical decision making. We give a lot of lip service to the idea of shared decision making between provider and patient, but most of us haven't really been trained in how to have a robust experience that helps me as a provider understanding what my patient wants. When I counsel patients with prostate cancer, it's almost impossible for me to do such a consultation in less than 90 minutes because there's such a range of options. And before I can really get to understanding which of those options might be most appropriate for a patient, I have to really know the patient. I have to know, in the case of prostate cancer, what makes him tick.
And so I think there's going to be tremendous upside for these hope enhancement techniques, not just using it for hope's sake but also for these other epiphenomenon in medicine, like adherence and like decision making, that we speak about all the time, but I wonder to what extent we're really committed to doing a better job on those parameters.
ASCO Daily News: Right. Do you see a role for technology to grow hope enhancement workshops, to make them accessible to more people in other parts of the world, in other medical settings? How do you think technology has changed the way people confront the experience of illness? And what role do you think you can play in this?
Dr. Benjamin Corn: Yeah. Well, I guess all of us were brought in very rapidly, sometimes kicking and screaming, into this new era. And health care providers are smart, and they're resourceful, and they've figured out a way to ride this challenging wave that COVID has brought into our lives, this tsunami, if you will. So COVID has pushed us all into digital health. My organization, Life's Door, which developed an application, a smartphone app, called Hopetimize--kind of a play on the words "hope" and "optimize"--in other words, the idea is to optimize your life with using these hope techniques I described before.
So we had a game plan to get to digital work in the year 2022. That was a strategy that we basically developed about 5 years ago. When COVID came along, we realized that we had this wonderful product called hope enhancement workshops that we thought could really help oncologists who we thought could help their patients. But we couldn't get people together because of the new criteria for social distancing.
So what was once a tailor-made concept for intimate settings with 15 people, I can tell you that even in our IRB-approved protocol--and people can see this on nih.gov, clinicaltrials.gov--our protocol specifies the kind of environment one has to have to conduct these workshops when you're doing it face to face. But that just couldn't happen for a full year, maybe a little bit more than that. So we very quickly developed the smartphone app, and we found a way to move our entire workshop to a Zoom platform. And we'll have some data that we'll be sharing that basically says that we can do it just as well with the Zoom platform as doing it face to face.
And what's more, it gives more people access to the technology. It allows for more sustainability because we're not only using Zoom, we're using different social media outlets. Most of the literature on hope enhancement--it's sometimes called hope augmentation--can demonstrate a spike in hopefulness after such an intervention. But the challenge then becomes how to sustain that hopefulness, and that's not easy. Well, by creating these digital communities of hopefulness, with the aid of different social media, we think that maybe this is exactly how we can deal with the sustainability question.
And finally, this kind of technology gives us scalability. I mentioned before that we've been approached by groups around the world, throughout Europe, now throughout Asia, parts of Africa, not to mention North America. Haven't heard much from South America and Antarctica now that I'm thinking about it, so we're waiting for you guys. But we could never--all of us--I'm a busy physician as well. So there's a limit to how many times my colleagues would have to cover me when I say, "Oh, I'm off on another trip, teaching these hope techniques to people."
But once we have it on Zoom platform, and we can bring, let's say, 15 to 20 people into the experience by bringing them into a Zoom room, I don't have to go anywhere. I can do it right from my living room, just like they're in their living room. And it sounds very simple, but I don't think anybody would have really imagined that we could be on our way like this if you sat down to contemplate this upside of 2019.
ASCO Daily News: Right. And do you feel the response from the oncology community, from your peers across the world, has been quite positive? Scientists are sometimes skeptical about things such as hope enhancement techniques. Or have you found that not to be the case?
Dr. Benjamin Corn: Yeah. That--so there's another example. I think that a barrier is the working assumptions of, let's say, my colleagues--let's say, me myself before I got into it. I mean, we're trained in a truly biological, scientific model. We talk about a biopsychosocial model, sometimes a biopsychosocial narrative model, but at its core, we pride ourselves as being scientists, and this kind of an idea was very off-putting to a lot of people.
When we started publishing on this and the word got out that there were actually reproducible results showing that we can enhance hopefulness, people said, "Wait a second. I'm having a problem myself with patients who are just not hopeful." "Wait a second. I'm having a problem myself with my own burnout and my own compassion fatigue." And these colleagues have been seeking this out now in droves. And what our challenge has been right now is to be training facilitators so that we can really fan out and make sure that we answer this need of people saying, "I want to learn these techniques."
Again, not just hope for hope's sake--I mean, I'm for hope. But for all the other upsides that we mentioned before--anti-burnout, increased adherence, probably bettered medical decision making--I think these are the motivators for people as opposed to just saying, "Make me more hopeful." So whatever gets you to the workshop, I couldn't care less. Everybody comes with their own reasons. That's always quite fascinating to hear why somebody decided to enroll in one of our workshops.
But once people are there, most of them find that they really benefited from it. Typically, if we do a workshop with 20 people, the next day, we'll get a third to 40% of the participants saying, "You know what? I love this so much. I took these techniques, and I called in my children after dinner, and we talked about their goals and what struggles they're having in trying to reach the goals." So to me, that's very touching.
And to get through your earlier question about the impact of this thing in communities outside of medicine, I think we're really on the cusp of forming what I like to describe as communities of hopefulness. And I think, again, we saw that in the COVID era. There was, in particular, a community in London that was very interested and brought us in also for a series of four workshops.
And one of the things that we're working on right now in a hospital setting is what we call the seal of hopefulness. And that's based on, when I was growing up, this notion of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Well, we want to be able to approach hospitals and to say, "Just like you like to go through the accreditation process, perhaps you want to go through this process of making your staff more hopeful."
Patients pick up on these things. So imagine, Geraldine, a world in which the physicians were taking care of you and the people you love, the nurses, the orderlies who bring them down to CT scans and the MRI. There's a lot of time that a patient in a hospital spends outside his or her bed. Imagine if en route to having a study, which you're very anxious about, you have somebody who's been trained and knows how to speak to you about your goals and your value. I think that would be the kind of environment I'd want to be taken care of in.
I mean, of course I want to know that the knowledge base is top shelf. But could you imagine if there was this hope seal on the door that said, "People here really give a damn. They care about you, not just your tumor, and that is their commitment." I think that can be very reassuring. And we've begun to pitch that idea to hospital administrators, both in Israel, where I'm based, and in large-scale hospitals both on the community level and the academic level in the U.S. and Canada.
ASCO Daily News: Excellent. Thank you so much, Dr. Corn, for telling us about your innovative work today. You really seem to be having a great impact. And I thank you very much for taking the time today.
Dr. Benjamin Corn: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
ASCO Daily News: And thank you to our listeners for your time today. If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Dr. Ben Corn: None disclosed.
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