Six years ago, my mother-in-law got diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at a rural hospital in Tennessee. They sent her home to die and told her she had three months to live. Given her symptoms and other factors, something didn’t add up. At the time I worked for a national news network and was able to get her an appointment the next week at M.D. Anderson in Houston.
One week and several tests later, we found out she was misdiagnosed and instead had neuroendocrine cancer. It’s the same kind of cancer Steve Jobs had, and he survived for eight years with it. What my mother-in-law had was terminal, but sending her home to die was the wrong “prescription.”
We got her in a regimen of care with the doctors at M.D. Anderson and found some successful experimental drugs that gave her four years more with us. At the time of her death, my mother-in-law’s tumors were the smallest they’d been since her diagnosis. What killed her is what kills me every time I think about it: she died of starvation and malnourishment.
How is that possible? Living back in rural Tennessee the year of her death, she began having issues with her liver and jaundice unrelated to the cancer. Her oncologist kept filling her up with fluids and sending her home. By the time she drove herself to the ER, she was the color of a New York City taxicab and so far gone, she never bounced back. What killed her wasn’t the cancer; it was a doctor and his staff, asleep at the wheel because they were facing federal charges at the time for issuing non-FDA-approved cancer drugs to his patients.
Unscrupulous doctors are everywhere, I’ll grant you, but let’s revisit the first part of her story – my mother-in-law lived in a rural area. Access to the latest knowledge and research is not available to all hospitals. This reality is supported by recent research published in the North Carolina Medical Journal this month. Analysis of Medicare-insured patients found that cancer patients living at greater distance from medical facilities were less likely to receive radiation and follow-up with their care.
Beyond that, a study released earlier this summer by the American Society of Clinical Oncology found that there is a shortage of 1,500 physicians over the next decade to care for cancer patients. Specifically, rural communities are those hurting the worst according to the analysis and nearly two-thirds of small oncology practices reported they are likely to merge, sell, or close within the next year.
So I hate to be such a Debbie-downer today, but I implore you to think about my family’s story and your own involvement with your doctors. Don’t take what your doctor tells you as the final word. Ask questions, and if you live in a rural area — or even if you don’t — seek out a second opinion, especially when it comes to matters of life and death.
I am filled with regret over how my mother-in-law died. Why didn’t we ask more questions when her doctor sent her home with jaundice? Why didn’t we take steps to have her airlifted to Houston for proper treatment? The answer is – up until the end – we trusted the medical community. Unfortunately, she paid the ultimate price, and her grandchildren pay the price every day they grow up without a woman who was the grandmother of all grandmothers and a treasure here on Earth.