“Opportunity cost” is a concept from economics. Wikipedia describes it as follows: “Opportunity cost is a term used to mean the cost of something in terms of an opportunity forgone (and the benefits that could be received from that opportunity).” So, for example, if a city builds a hospital on vacant land that it owns, the opportunity cost is some other thing that might have been done with the land instead.
How does this apply to chronic lymphocytic leukemia? Have I finally gone off the deep end and decided to talk about building hospitals in my lymph nodes?
Not quite. Let’s take a look at one of our favorite CLL phrases: “watch and wait.” Wikipedia describes this under the medical term “watchful waiting”: “Watchful waiting, also referred to as observation, is an approach to a medical problem in which time is allowed to pass before further testing or therapy is pursued. Often watchful waiting is recommended in situations with a high likelihood of self-resolution or situations where the risks of a therapy potentially outweigh its benefits.”
Well, in CLL, we know that self-resolution is not the usual outcome. We get the short end of the watchful waiting stick: the risks of therapy potentially outweigh its benefits.
The trick is, when do you stop watchful waiting and start treating?
In some patients, this is an easy call -- the hemoglobin and platelets are crashing, there is fatigue that noticeably impacts quality of life, night sweats resemble the Great Flood, lymph nodes are popping up like well-fed prairie dogs, and so on.
In other patients, the call is a bit more difficult -- perhaps the hemoglobin and platelets are fine, but the lymphocyte doubling time is less than six months, or perhaps the lymphocyte count is normal but nodes are growing into little tennis balls. Looking at prognostic factors such as IgVH mutational status and FISH deletions may provide a little clarity, but sometimes not much.
The NCI Working Group guidelines were written in 1996 to help doctors know which red flags to watch for. But there is no rote approach to starting treatment, and often no general consensus on when, exactly, to do it. Doctors have their individual opinions, and medicine is still an art. As we all know, artists range from the paint-by-numbers type to Rembrandt. Many of us have met the former type of hem/onc, and some of us have met the latter. Indeed, I could go on here, comparing some hem/oncs to impressionists like Monet, some to modernists like Picasso, some to surrealists like Dali, and some to elephants at the zoo painting with brushes in their trunks.
“Opportunity cost” in CLL
But let’s get back to “opportunity cost.” I will define it in CLL terms: Opportunity cost is what happens when you watch and wait too long. It’s what happens when symptoms get so far out of control that they are either 1) not successfully controllable, or 2) controllable only by extreme measures that, had the disease been treated earlier, would not have to have been taken. By extension, then, opportunity cost in CLL can be the opportunity foregone to treat with less toxic agents.
Patient advocates and some doctors have written about the dangers of premature treatment, which is indeed a problem in the CLL world, especially among hem/oncs for whom CLL is an afterthought or a dim memory in a textbook.
But the problem can, I believe, run in an opposite direction, and the opportunity cost can be an opportunity lost.
An extreme example, just for illustration, would be someone who uses EGCG, to no great avail, but who continues to do so right into marrow failure. Earlier treatment with something -- even Rituxan, or maybe low-dose chlorambucil combined with Rituxan and a low-dose steroid such as dexamethasone -- might have forestalled that day.
Say you’re a patient who would like to stick to the one soft-glove option we currently have readily available, at least in the USA: the monoclonal antibody Rituxan, perhaps with boosters such as GM-CSF. The problem you have is that even Rituxanites -- or would that be rituximabbers? -- such as myself freely admit that it isn’t all that effective in CLL as a single agent, and doctors heartily echo that sentiment. To the extent that it is effective, it appears to be more so at earlier stages and in patients with less disease burden. So, if you want to use Rituxan, which works best on smaller lymph nodes, is there an opportunity cost to waiting until one’s lymph nodes grow to 8 cm or 10 cm?
Rituxan might shrink a spleen that is 6 inches below the costal margin, but will it work on a spleen that reaches halfway to China?
Most responsible physician artists, trained in the days when there was no soft-glove option available, tend to want to watch and wait until the horse is out of the barn, out of town, and in the next county. If the only available choice is hard chemo -- “where the risks of a therapy potentially outweigh its benefits” -- this makes sense.
But today we have the softer-glove array, however limited and imperfect (with the promise of possibly better agents, such as HuMax-CD20, on the way.) So, is there an opportunity cost to letting things go, to following the conservative approach that is the traditional way of watchful waiting?
If you want to play for time by using Rituxan, there may be. Now, some of these doctors might argue that some of us patients can make the mistake of using Rituxan too soon. Nobody said this was easy to finesse. And there is a paradox here: Patients seeking a conservative approach to treatment may treat sooner with Rituxan -- because of the way the drug works -- than traditional treatment conservatives would treat. We may find ourselves at odds with good doctors whose sentiments we appreciate.
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