What Do You Call the People Who Graduate Last in Their Medical-School Class?

Last night, I went to a celebration for my friend, Paula.  She and I spent years together, pacing the sidelines at soccer games, yelling for our sons’ teams.  She’s about half my size, but has the biggest mouth and strongest will of anybody I know.  If you stood next to her at an athletic event, there was a serious danger you might go temporarily deaf.

The mariachi band came in the room and we all danced and drank margaritas.  After it was all over, Paula got up and thanked everybody for their support.  We had helped make it possible for her to survive surgery and months of chemotherapy, she said.

She’s in her mid-forties.  Too young for a colonoscopy, her doctor kept telling her earlier this year.  She insisted — and when Paula insists, she usually gets her way.  Thank God.  The doctor couldn’t even complete the procedure because of the tumor in her colon.

After the party, I came home to an email from a friend.  He was writing about his daughter who’s in her mid-twenties and was just diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer.  For two years, her doctor had told her not to worry about the lump in her breast.  She was too young for breast cancer, he said.

In case I’m not being heavy-handed enough about this message, let me go further.  I’m sure your doctors are all swell people, but I’ve heard too many stories like this to give them carte blanche.  You know the old joke about what they call the person who graduates last in his medical-school class?  They call that person “doctor.”

They’re human, they’re fallible, they make mistakes.  If you have any doubts, get a second opinion.  “Do you want to have cancer?” a doctor asked a woman I met when I was in the hospital for my mastectomy.  He said that because he was annoyed she kept bringing up the lump he assured her was nothing.  By the time I met her, she was bald from preoperative chemo, wearing a little kerchief over her head.  “Sue the sleazy bastard,” I told her at the little support-group meeting we were in.  “Take the fucker to the cleaners.”

I’m sure she didn’t.  What good would that have done her?  I never saw her again, but I’ve always wondered what happened to her, whether she lived.  “I see we’ve all gotten in touch with our anger,” the support group leader said that day, nervously eyeing me.  He had no idea.

So, get a mammogram.  Get a colonoscopy the instant you turn 50 — unless you have symptoms earlier than that.  Don’t let your doctors boss you around.  In this case, it’s instructive to remember who’s employing whom.  We’re all going to die eventually, but it would be a shame to die sooner just because we’re too timid to speak up.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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  • When my loved one was diagnosed, we quickly learned to question and argue with doctors.  An internal stitch on his chest port became red and just didn’t look or feel right.  A bad doctor kept dismissing our concerns.  It ended up causing a horrible infection, weeks in the hospital, and near death.  Treatments had to be delayed, and that caused other problems.   

    The good doctors liked when we questioned.  The bad doctors were highly offended, but I told the bad ones to shove it. 

    Your cancer posts are wonderful and mean so much to me.  Happily, we’re survivors now.  Thank you for your wonderful words.

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