When the writer becomes the patient …… Personal story on making medical decisions

[The Boston Globe, G-Cover Story, Health Section, January 20, 2014]

by Karen D. Brown

One afternoon last fall, I was pacing a high school parking lot in Wilbraham, straining to see my son running in his first cross-country meet, while absently listening to Muzak on my cellphone. My doctor had put me on hold as he looked for my pathology report on his fax machine.

Three weeks earlier, my annual mammogram had turned up some calcifications. Apparently, they can either be benign calcium deposits or signs of something worse. When I went in for a biopsy, the radiologist showed me the X-rays, and I could just make out a few tiny white dots scattered amid my veiny breast tissue. “We get a lot of false alarms,” a nurse assured me shortly before a thin needle was inserted into my left breast to take out the dubious cells and send them out for analysis.

I wasn’t actually very worried. I’d been overreacting to health scares for so long, I had gotten used to most news being better than I feared. Plus, I exercise regularly, eat well, and don’t smoke.

“Well, Karen . . . ” My doctor’s voice broke into the Muzak just as my son was running into view. “The report says ductal carcinoma in situ.”

I waited for the part where he added, “So everything’s fine. Don’t forget to get your thyroid levels checked and I’ll see you next year.”

But instead, he repeated what was starting to sound a lot like a real diagnosis. “It is cancer. But the good news is, we caught it early.”

Good news, apparently, is relative. As I pressed the phone closer to my ear, blocking out the cheering track parents, my doctor tried to end on a positive note: “It’s a good thing we didn’t follow those recent mammogram recommendations.”

[to continue reading in the Boston Globe online, click here]

[to read my reflections on writing this piece -- on the Association of Health Care Journalists blog-- click here]

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