Q&A with Isaac Yang, MD

Within moments of speaking with Isaac Yang, MD, it is clear he has excitement and passion for patients and patient education. Dr. Yang, a neurosurgeon specializing in the surgical treatment and clinical outcomes of adult brain tumors at UCLA, is an active advocate for patient education and provides many educational resources to empower patients and help them understand their treatment options.
Brainlab.org had the chance to sit down with Dr. Yang to learn more about his passion for helping patients with brain tumors, providing credible resources to educate them through their treatment process and using Brainlab technology.

Q: What is your background?

A: My parents emigrated from South Korea and settled down in Chicago, IL, where I was born. My father is a doctor too and did his residency at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital. We moved to Lodi, California which is where I grew up. I went to Berkley for college, University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) for medical school, University of California San Francisco (UCSF) for residency and back to UCLA to start my practice.

Q: So, why neurosurgery?

A: I initially went to medical school to be a pediatrician, but I realized how challenging it is to be around sick kids: it really takes a huge emotional toll on you. I found the human brain to be incredibly fascinating, and brain surgery is, for lack of a better word, just cool! It’s really fascinating to be able to look at the beautiful brain pulsating, moving, and be able to touch it and do something good for patients and the have them wake up. It was mind-blowing.

Q: What do you like about Brainlab technology?

A: Brainlab seems to be always pushing the envelope with making their technology easier and safer for a physician to use. The navigation is quite smooth. It feels like it was designed specifically for the brain and the end user, instead of just a technology created by an engineer and then used on the brain. Their technology is good at making me a better surgeon, which is best for my patients. Their research and development is constantly changing and coming up with newer and better ideas faster than most other companies.

Q: How do you set a patient’s expectations for their outcomes?

A: The first thing I try to tell my patients who have cancer is that we are treating cancer. When we discuss treatment options for cancer, I am very clear that we haven’t cured cancer yet. We have no cure for cancer; I promise you if we had a cure I’d be the first to let you know about it. Cancer is horrible and can affect anyone. But just because we cannot cure cancer does not mean that we shouldn’t fight cancer. I say to my patients “Let’s fight cancer: you fight cancer, I’ll fight cancer, and we’ll fight cancer together.” So we’ll fight this with radiation, we’ll fight this with chemotherapy; we’ll fight this with our relationship. It is not an easy fight; it’s a fight for your life. Sometimes it’s depressing, sometimes there are down days and sometimes there are up days. I tell them I’m going to have down days too, I’m your doctor. On your down days I’ll pick you up and on my down days you pick me up. And together we are going to strive for the best quality of life.

Q: Do patients usually come back from that conversation and ask for educational resources to learn how to fight cancer?

A: Yes. And cancer is such a broad term so patients are always looking for specifics and asking what should they look at and what is reliable. There are a lot of unreliable websites, and if you go to one of these wrong ones you get the wrong information, so it’s very important to have sites such as brainlab.org on the internet to provide credible, reliable information.

Q: Do you see value in brainlab.org and the resources we are providing?

A: I think there is real value in that people need good and reliable information, as well as integrity. Not only are patients looking for information, but they are vulnerable, and sometimes that vulnerability makes them willing to suspend their common sense for websites that are not credible. Recently, I saw there was a website set up by a woman who did not have cancer but said she did, and she claimed she beat cancer by changing her diet and living a healthy life. I am not against changing your diet and I’m all about healthy living, but I’m against people misappropriating information and saying that diet will cure cancer, because it will not. That’s what I’m against. Cancer patients are desperate and I understand their desperation. If someone told you were going to die in two years, you’d be willing to see and believe anything for that not to be true. So it angers me when people take advantage of that vulnerability.  What we need more of are good, reputable websites such as brainlab.org that give information with integrity. Sites that say, look we have no skin in the game, no bias, no ulterior motive. The site is pure, it’s full of great information, and we want you to learn as much as possible.

Q: Do you think a patient can have too much knowledge or do too much research?

A: I do sometimes get asked “why are we not doing this type of treatment?” and patients are sometimes ‘over-educated’, but information is power and if they question my treatment plan that is fantastic! Let’s face it, sometimes doctors are wrong, so it’s great if we can talk through it and address questions. Patients need to come to a point where they are comfortable with their treatment plan. I don’t think they can be over-educated. Education and knowledge are power, and that’s what makes today’s era with the internet and smartphones so wonderful; everyone can get on the same page. There is a lot of information and a lot of education out there, and I don’t think a patient can ever have too much of it. I encourage education. Patients need to learn and know more, because no one cares more about your cancer and your brain than yourself.

Q: How else do you educate patients about what you do?

A: I have a YouTube video based on the major diseases that I treat including acoustic neuromas, meningiomas, and metastasis. The vast majority of patients have already found this video on their own and have seen it before they even come to see me. I don’t ask them to and yet many of them watch it. YouTube is such a powerful medium. It’s always available and super convenient; people can watch at their leisure, and can watch all over the world.

Q: Any other useful advise for patients?

A: My word of advice to patients is that you should feel empowered, and if you don’t feel empowered, my message to you is that you have more power than you realize. You have more power to fight cancer than you realize. You have more power to be strong than you realize. You have more power to inspire than you realize. And that goes along with your healthcare. You have the power to tell doctors no. You have the power to direct your healthcare plan with your doctors. If your doctor says to you ‘look, this is it’ and they don’t really explain your treatment plan and you don’t understand, you have the power to look for another opinion. You have the power for a second, a third, a fourth opinion. You have the power to educate yourself. Education is power, and with all these resources I would ask that you please educate yourself because you have the right to do so. You have the power to educate, to learn, and to find the best therapy that is right for you. There is no ‘one size fits all’ and you have the power to look beyond one size fits all. Find the treatment that fits you. Find out who you are, what you are, be true to yourself and recognize that you have a lot more power than you realize.

Posted in: Brain Cancer Q&A