A year ago today, on September 22, 2005, I lost my best friend of 20 years. She was 32 years old and just starting her life. She didn’t fall to a drunk driver or a murderer. There is no one to rage against. She fell to a malfunction of her own body.
She died of colon cancer.
She was diagnosed in stage IV and died less than a month after diagnosis. It was not the expected diagnosis. Colon cancer is not tested for until the age of 50 in people who have no family history. Sadly because of the location, colon cancer rarely presents with symptoms. Called the silent killer, over 60% of cases are not diagnosed until they are at least stage III where the survival rate plummets from the high 80th percentile to the 50th.
In stage IV the 5 year survival rate is less than 5%.
The sad thing is, if detected early enough colon cancer is the most curable type of cancer. Incapable of spreading to the lymph nodes by itself, it must first penetrate the intestinal wall and infect another organ before it can metastasize. This makes the early stages of this disease completely curable by surgical means.
In Kelly’s case her cancer was small but in the wrong place. It perforated the intestinal wall and invaded her liver.
For years Kelly had complained about increasingly bad heart burn. Heartburn that could not be remedied by OTC drugs. And for all of those years we, her friends and family urged her to go to the doctor.
Unfortunately, like most of us, she kept making excuses not to go. It was just heart burn after all.
And when she did go, the doctor simply told her that she was overweight, dismissing her symptoms out of hand.
Already self conscious about her weight, Kelly was mortified. Her worst fear confirmed, from that day on she refused to see a doctor about her problem. Any problem that could possibly be blamed on her weight.
That was a little over 2 years before her death.
When her cancer was still curable. When she had a chance.
I am not going to preach about bad foods, though I have not eaten fast food since her death. And I am not going to preach about fiber. There are enough other sorces for those lessons.
Instead I would just like to ask one small question: Late at night, when they are alone, who will comfort your loved ones when you are gone?
Will your pride be enough to fill the hole you leave behind?
We are all insecure and we are all self conscious. It is even harder to press for something when the entity you are pressing against is someone in a position of power. We put doctors on a pedestal. We think they are always right. But they too are human. They are subject to prejudices just like we are and they are fallible.
You. You know your body best. If something feels wrong to you, then it probably is. If you have symptoms that worsen over time or persist then there is probably something wrong. Don’t let your doctor brush you off.
Be an informed and helpful patient.
Do your research. There are many trusted sites on which you can look up your symptoms. The national institute of health offers an excellent place to start. Medical journals are freely available through many sources.
Research your symptoms and find out about tests that can confirm or exclude a diagnosis.
Record your symptoms. Does it happen after you eat? How long? Does it happen when you lay down? Does the symptom happen when you first get up? Is the pain on your right side? Is it a radiating pain? Shooting? Do you get dizzy when you turn your head or when you get up suddenly? Keep a diary.
Present the symptoms to your doctor. If the doctor rushes to a conclusion, such as saying it is because of your weight, ask them to explain further. Make them slow down. If you feel you are being brushed off, go see another doctor. A good doctor will take time to listen to you and really understand your complaint. They will offer a course of treatment and follow up. The doctor should also explain the course of treatment, which includes any side effects and what the treatment does.
Follow ups are important. Did that new medication help the symptoms? Did it bring up new one? Did it change the symptoms?
If there is no change, insist that your doctor look for other causes. Ask for reasonable tests in accordance to your symptoms. Call for your test results. Set up and appointment to get them. Do not assume that just because you do not hear from your doctor that everything is OK. If you are not satisfied with your doctor’s explanation of the results, you have a right to a copy of your medical file. Get a copy and get a second opinion.
If tests reveal a growth or a lump or any occult results DO NOT wait to further investigate the results. A single month can make a huge difference. Schedule follow-ups immediately and insist on more testing. Those spots on the X-ray could be calcifications or they could be a fast growing cancer. Don’t wait to find out.
Once you have a diagnosis; do not wait to start on a course of treatment. If the treatment suggested by your doctor is aggressive, make sure you are comfortable with it. You have the right to a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth. And a fifth. However many it takes to make you comfortable. Remember, too aggressive of a treatment now may limit your choices later.
You have a right to good medical care.
But it is up to you to be an informed and conscientious.
Be your own advocate. It’s not just your life. It’s the life of every single person that cares about you.
There is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss Kelly.
There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish that she had sought treatment earlier.
5% is no chance at all.