After experiencing increasing fatigue over the course of several years, I started to miss gatherings with friends and family and got to the point of taking one day off a month from work to sleep all day. This was unlike me as I was always very involved with professional and volunteer activities and had a very full schedule including parenting my young son with my spouse. After a lingering cold evolved into bronchitis, I began to explore what was wrong with the assistance of my primary care provider (PCP). I had mild persistent anemia, but nothing to warrant the degree of extreme fatigue that I was experiencing. She (my PCP) was very tolerant of my various Google-induced ideas, graciously accepting some to follow up with tests and others to set aside.
After eleven months, a test showed that I had elevated M-proteins and my PCP sent me to a hematologist/oncologist who after greeting me reviewed several years’ worth of labs and then turned to tell me to come back in six months. She did not examine me. She did not ask me about my symptoms. She prepared to usher exit the room. I felt that I could not leave her office without her understanding how significantly the fatigue was impacting my daily life. This is when the inner warrior in me said NO! I did not move from my chair. I told her, “Nope. Now is the time that I need to tell you about my symptoms.” (Now this was somewhat uncomfortable for me because I have been well-trained to be polite and professional with doctors, but I had had enough. My New York elbows were coming out!)
I read from a list that I had prepared detailing what I had been able to do prior to feeling unwell and what I could do now. As I went down the list for several minutes, she looked at her watch in a disgruntled manner, finally asking me “What do you want?” I told her that I wanted to feel well. I did not feel well and believed that something was wrong. I wanted her to do more tests. She agreed and also sent me out to schedule an appointment in six months. One week later at 8 AM as I was on my way out to work, SHE called me to tell me that she had scheduled a bone marrow biopsy (BMB) for the next day. I cleared my calendar. The BMB results confirmed that I had stage 2 Myeloma with more than 80 percent involvement in my bone marrow. My husband and I learned of this on the day before Thanksgiving. We were both in shock. We had so much to learn and at that point had no idea how much this diagnosis was going to change our lives.
After a quick success of additional tests scheduled STAT, I started chemotherapy within two weeks. Getting a diagnosis took A LOT of persistence and determination when specialists minimized what I knew about my body — that something significant was wrong. And it was. Today is five years to the day of that diagnosis and I still wonder whether I would be diagnosed today if I had not INSISTED upon further testing. To her credit, the oncologist/hematologist did eventually acknowledge that I was right to press her to do more tests and that it was through my self-advocacy that I achieved a diagnosis.
What I would hope that others would take away from this story is how essential it is to be aware of your own body and to keep advocating (again and again) for yourself with doctors even when your symptoms are minimized. I was trained to advocate for others as a social worker, but it took intentional work to give myself permission to say no to doctors at first politely and then later not so politely to demand additional testing until an outcome was achieved that explained my health issues. Be persistent. You know more about your symptoms than anyone else. Do not stop until you find out what is going on with your body.
Honora Miller is a Myeloma patient, diagnosed at age 49 in 2015. She is currently in remission with ongoing monthly maintenance chemotherapy after receiving several lines of treatment including a stem cell transplant. A trained social worker and mediator, she is now on disability and in the process of adapting to a “new normal” that does not enable her to continue to work professionally. Honora holds a Masters of Social Service Degree and a Masters in Law and Social Policy from the Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work. She focuses on intentional efforts to be as healthy as she can be, both physically and emotionally, while enjoying quality time with her family. Maintaining a positive outlook, continually educating herself about Myeloma, and learning how to be an effective self-advocate, have been crucial to managing what has been a life-changing diagnosis.