A success story is about having a positive outcome. We mostly hear about success stories as monetary achievements, but that’s really selling the word “success” short. I’m a brain cancer survivor. That’s a success story! I was barely out of my 20s when I was first diagnosed with what was first believed to be a benign brain tumor. My oldest daughter was only a year old then. She just turned 25. She’s only four years younger than when I was first diagnosed.
Where did the time go? I think to myself, “life is half spent before we know it.” There’s a saying that experience is the best teacher, but the tuition is high. Oh, so true! Through my treatments and surgeries I’ve lost the hearing in my left ear; the ability to swallow on one side; certain vision abilities; my tongue is paralyzed on one side (amazingly, the other side works to the point that you mostly can’t tell about the paralyzed side); I also have some memory loss. But I’m still here.
While of course I wouldn’t have chosen these circumstances — they happened to me and because of them I’ve gleaned a great deal of knowledge in a few particularly important areas: doctors, the business of medicine and being a patient. It’s because of my medical history that I have met or been treated by so many doctors. Some of those doctors have at times actually slowed down my path to better health or recovery — but I have learned from those experiences. I also know that there have been doctors without whom I wouldn’t be here today.
The enlightenment that I have achieved is important to share with those that may be at the beginning of their own healing path or one day will be walking it. They pertain to any healing path. Here are nine of the most important things I’ve learned.
If you know something is wrong, something is most likely wrong
There had been years in between my being diagnosed wrong, and being diagnosed right — I had many symptoms. My particular cancerous brain tumor was relatively slow growing; the yearly MRIs indicated that “it may be larger due to angle or technology.” Instead of this being an alarm bell, or at the very least an indication for further testing, my doctors were lulled into a state of complacency.
I was seen often, looked quite healthy, and so I was probably just overreacting. I wasn’t. The tumor that looked slightly larger every year, was slightly larger. By the time I found a doctor that listened to me, and didn’t just look at me… the tumor had grown to twice the size than it was when it was originally diagnosed and treated. None of my previous doctors had compared my most recent MRIs with my original MRI to see it had grown. Listen to yourself, and campaign heartily.
Freedom to Feel
After you’ve received your diagnosis, you need to have the freedom to feel what you feel. You may have friends and family members that will put different spins on your things. There are those that are full of “gloom and doom.” Then there are others that will tell you not to be depressed when you’re depressed. They will tell you to be appreciative instead for all you do have. The intentions of these upbeat souls, is in the right place, but it will be difficult not to feel depressed some of the time. It’s okay to feel down about being sick, it doesn’t mean you can’t feel positive about your outcome, nor does it mean you can’t feel appreciative about what you have. Just knowing that is part of Patient Power.
Doctors are just people
We put doctors on a pedestal. We believe them to have our best interest in mind, and I’m sure most do. However, doctoring is also a business. Doctors either consciously or unconsciously make decisions based on their ego, their desire to be noticed in the medical field, maybe even based on multiple reasons. This may sound callous, but think about it. Haven’t we all made a business decision here and there based on multiple reasons? They do what they have to do-you do what you have to do. Again being aware that this may be a part of the landscape is part of having power as a patient. Don’t be flattered that a doctor is interested in taking you on as a patient just because he’s considered an excellent doctor. Think about why the doctor will be good for you.
Doctors will seldom say “I don’t know”
How much easier the process would be if doctors that don’t know, just said it. You could then take this non-information and move on, but instead a “not knowing doctor” can really slow down the process. You end up wasting valuable time on an opinion that should not even be in the mix. This makes the process more difficult, but being aware that it does exist, keeps you aware and on your toes, and a better patient. Try asking your doctor “Do you know if this will work?” “How will it work?” More information is better. If the answer is not what you want to hear, that’s okay. It’s an answer. You won’t be going to that doctor.
Use the Internet
This may seem obvious, but there are still those that don’t have access to the internet, don’t know how to use it, or perhaps are feeling too overwhelmed after receiving a bad medical report to go searching on the internet for themselves. If you don’t have or know how to access the internet, find someone else that does. There have been stories written about how people self-diagnose online. We’ve all read these stories and it’s important to understand the difference between finding out information after you’ve already received a medical diagnosis and trying to hunt down information to diagnose yourself before you’ve even been to a doctor about what is ailing you. That difference is enormous.
The Internet is invaluable. When I had my first surgery in 1990, there was no real Internet. What did exist was extremely slow, and had very limited information. These days, if you dig, you can find out so much, not only about your illness, but about your doctor’s background, and what other treatments and research is available as well. There are services that allow patients to comment, even rate doctors with whom they’ve consulted. This is good information. Information is part of Patient Power.
The more information the better
I like doctor rating sites. These services keep doctors on their toes. If a doctor asks you to sign a legal document agreeing that you will not participate in one of these sites (I’ve heard that this is something that some doctors are doing now), walk away. If a doctor is that worried about you going online and making a negative comment about them, then this is not the doctor for you. Most doctors aren’t concerned about these sites because they know they’re doing a good job.
No doctor should make you feel your questions are a waste of time
No doctor should make you feel your questions are stupid, or that you’re stupid. Again, not all doctors know all things. Sometimes condescension is “I don’t know” expressed differently.
Opinions, opinions, opinions
It’s said you can take opinions all day long. You can… and you should. The more complicated the medical issue, the more opinions you should get. Try and get as many as your insurance will pay for, or you can afford. Yes, It can get to be overwhelming to get/have many opinions; it’s definitely easier to get only one — but what price easy? The one opinion you have may be a wrong opinion. It is so worth taking the time and doing the research. The best solution for you will become clear. I know from experience that this is true.
Always trust your gut
I asked one of my doctors about a certain therapy, and he emphatically told me that the therapy was not for me. Turns out he was wrong. That therapy is what may have saved my life. When he told me it was not for me, it didn’t sit right. I trusted my gut and pursued it anyway. Over my years as a patient, I have had a doctor strangely come to my bedside and cry. I had another who only returned my calls at 11:30 at night. Another told me we would be seeing each for the rest of my life, only to then have a follow up conversation several days later where he wished me luck, but that I should be seeing another doctor for follow-up.
All these things at the time seemed strange, but looking back now with hindsight, I know that all of these responses might have been indications of either things that were not right in their own lives, or in the most glaring cases, failing on the part of that doctor. So listen to your gut. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
(This post was originally published in Huffington Post)