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Doctors: Please have "ears that hear"

We’ve partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases will share their unique stories; the latest comes from Iowa's Judy Peterson.

Several years ago we moved back to the Midwest, and I needed to find a family physician. I opted for a female doctor, hoping that as a woman she might be more tuned to my aging female body and to its potential health problems. Potential, I say, because I thought I was in good health.

I liked my new doctor and enjoyed my annual physicals and other visits. But looking back, I wish she would have listened more closely to my seemingly minor complaints. I may have been ignorant about the subtle and near-silent symptoms of ovarian cancer, including rib pain and the frequent need to urinate, day and night, but my doctor should have known. I expected her to know.

It was in 2007 when I first mentioned rib pain to my doctor. I told her I couldn’t sleep on my right side. Six months later I mentioned it again, and in late 2008 I once more mentioned the nagging discomfort. During that visit my doctor did a two-second rectovaginal pelvic examination and, as part of my physical, a full blood work-up. The results were still at the lab so before I left I asked her to send me a print-out.

Several days later my blood results arrived in the mail. Three pages. At the top of the first page my doctor had written, “Looks great!” endorsed by an inked smiley face. I casually scanned down the first page. Everything looked normal. But when I got to the third page I noticed my alkaline phosphatase reading was abnormally high, and I did what any normal person does these days: I Googled. Possibilities included problems with the gall bladder or liver and that dastardly word “cancer.” Naturally, I opted to think it was a gall bladder problem and asked for an ultrasound, which showed a large gallstone that I went in to get removed.

My gall bladder surgeon was the one to give me the bad news. As I came out from under the anesthesia, his face swirled in the white light above me while he told me he had found cancer in my abdomen and on my liver. I remember distinctly the photos he showed me. Still under the influence of anesthesia, I replied quietly, “That is not good news.”

Fortunately for me, my surgeon referred me to a Gyno/Onc who debulked me, removed 95 percent of the cancer, tied my intestines into little “animal balloons” (I jest only slightly), returned them to my ab cavity and put me back together with 43 metal staples. I had just endured the “mother of all surgeries.” It was a brutal surgery but without it I would be long dead. The official diagnosis was ovarian cancer (stage III-C), and chemo followed. And followed. And followed.

Three and a half years later, I’m on my 5th chemo regimen. All things considered I’m doing fairly well: I lead an active life, do some volunteer work, take care of my home. I’m grateful to be alive. But I can’t help but think that if my doctor had listened more closely, more sharply, with “ears that hear,” to my ongoing complaints about rib pain, or if she had provided me with a simple informational brochure so I would been more knowledgeable, perhaps I would have been diagnosed long before Stage III-C.

Every woman knows about breast cancer. But very few know about the symptoms or diagnostic tests involved with ovarian cancer – which could be why most of us are diagnosed late in the game, when statistics for survival are grim. Awareness is the most important piece of diagnosis – awareness by both the medical professional and the patient – and so I ask doctors to educate themselves and their patients about this deadly cancer.

Judy Peterson, of Onawa, Iowa, is enjoying her retirement years with her husband, children and grandchildren. She blogs about a variety of topics, including her walk with ovarian cancer, at Wanna Walk Along?

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