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Cancer screening: An illustrated story

A Stanford medical student uses images from pathology to tell a story about the medical ethics of screening for prostate cancer.

As a fourth-year medical student and pathology fellow, Nick Love, PhD, grew enchanted by corpora amylacea, small masses within the prostate glands that he saw under the microscope. When dyed in bright colors, they look a little like lopsided tree rings, with a series of concentric lines.

Love had recently returned from vacation in Cambodia, where he biked around Angkor Wat, reveling in its artistry. "I was inspired by the beauty of those temples, the detail in the carvings," he said.

Med student and artist Nick Love before one of his works
Other artworks by Stanford medical student Nick Love are displayed in the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge.

With Angkor Wat's artistic mastery still fresh in his mind, he decided to use the corpora amylacea to tell a medical narrative. "I wanted to turn them into a story about a patient based on many of the patient charts I'd been reading," he said.

Love's grandfather had died of prostate cancer, so he understood on a personal level the benefits of screening. At the same time, he realized that screening is costly and presents its own risks such as infection, impotence or urinary complications.

In Love's 21-page story, a patient, Mr. P, has a friend who was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, and he's worried he may have it too. He undergoes a series of increasingly invasive, and expensive, procedures. Ultimately, Mr. P is OK, but Love adds an alternate ending in which Mr. P, though free of cancer, dies from sepsis due to a prostate biopsy.

Love incorporated prints of dyed corpora amylacea -- the little gems found in prostate glands -- as a border on each page. He also included images, some of them doctored Love family photographs, illustrating the text: One page features cutaway images of Mr. P's head with elephants inside, signifying the mental anguish that confusing diagnostic results can bring.

When he entered it in the John Conley Art of Medicine contest, he won, securing $5,000 -- money he plans to use to pay off student loans. "Corpora amylacea: An illustrated narrative addressing the risks, benefits, and conundrum of cancer screening," was published in the February issue of AMA Journal of Ethics.

Love has produced numerous works of art during his time at Stanford School of Medicine such as a series of medical mnemonics and creations celebrating Frankenstein. He has also illustrated a medical textbook.

Love is pursuing a residency in dermatology and said he plans to keep producing art while practicing medicine. "I feel like this is going to be a lifetime pursuit," he said.

Illustrations by Nick Love

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