Having a Great Primary Care Doctor During Cancer Made a Difference

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My reliable primary care physician was such an important asset in navigating multiple cancers.

Illustration of a woman with shoulder-length hair wearing a blue jacket.

Dr. C is very special to me. He has been my primary care physician (PCP) for 20 years, and he will be my PCP for the rest of my life, unless he retires first, which I don’t like to think about. A nurse friend of mine, who had worked closely with Dr. C, referred me to him.

And I needed to see a good doctor. In the prior months, I had lived with a mysterious weakness and numbness, first in my lower left leg, then it worked its way further up my left side. I saw a variety of doctors, including an orthopedist and a neurologist. Finally, at a friend’s suggestion, I made an appointment with a chiropractor. He used a number of chiropractic tests, ultimately weighing me on a scale that determined the comparative weights of the two sides of my body. He, then, confidently told me, “You need to return to your medical doctor.”

So that day in May 2004, I visited Dr. C’s office for the first time. I told him, “Just in case it is relevant to my symptoms now — 2 1/2 years ago, I had a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery after I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (the earliest stage of breast cancer).”

I represented the third generation of women on the maternal side of my family to have breast cancer discovered; both my mother and grandmother died of the disease. My mastectomy was completely successful. However, what my plastic surgeon described as “just a bump in the road” left me with an infected implant issue for close to a year. I felt so comfortable with Dr. C, even when sharing the breast reconstruction issues with him.

Dr. C sent me for the MRI that led to my diagnosis: meningioma, a typically benign tumor in the lining of the brain, in my case, the size of a baseball.

He called me on a Thursday evening with the MRI report, and when my husband and I arrived for a consultation on Friday morning, his first words to us were, “If you have to have a brain tumor, a meningioma is the best kind to have.” Those words touched me. I was already becoming impressed with Dr. C.

He referred me to a highly skilled brain surgeon, who explained the process he would follow in surgery. First, liquify the tumor to the consistency of a milkshake and then suction it out of the lining of the brain. The surgeon then said to me, “Although there’s no urgency to remove the tumor, I’m sure you’d like me to do the surgery soon.”

“Yes,” I replied, and the doctor scheduled me for surgery the following Tuesday.

Observing protocol, I was in the intensive care unit (ICU) of the hospital for the first 24 hours after surgery before being transferred to a standard hospital room, where I remained for four more days. I did well in my recovery, and a couple of days later, all the bandaging was removed from my head. Neither my thinking nor emotional skills were affected. And again, there was Dr. C. He had come to see me, first in the ICU and then at least three more times after.

Before I knew it, I was home. I suffered some severe headaches for a week or so, but within two weeks, much faster than after breast surgery, I was well enough to go back to work. Waiting for my hair to grow back was the only delay. I wore hats for quite a while.

I remained well, generally, for 14 years…

Then, in May 2018, an incidental finding on a CT scan showed small tumors, one in each of my lungs. Dr. C called me two days later in the evening, with the news about the tumors, which had been biopsied. “They are both malignant,” he had told me.

I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. “So, I have lung cancer.”

He responded to my sadness, saying, “I think now is the time I should tell you about my father-in-law. Like you, he never smoked, but was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Unlike yours, his cancer had metastasized to his brain. He is old now, in his late 80s but cancer-free. And I think you will beat cancer as well. However, there will be a lot of ups and downs in the coming weeks and months.”

His words touched me, yet again.

The ups and downs were prevalent; it was like one long roller coaster ride, but I made it through treatment, into remission, and eventually, through scan after scan to the five-year mark, cancer-free. Having Dr. C by my side made a huge difference. I kept him posted when he wouldn’t otherwise know how I was doing in my treatment.

If there had ever been any doubt in my mind about Dr. C’s lack of pursuit of status in the medical world, and true desire to simply serve his patients, it vanished the day Dr. C told me the story about a 19-year-old college student, the son of two of his colleagues.

As my doctor reviewed my medical records, he reminded me that the outcome of my meningioma surgery had really pleased him.

“Last December, my colleagues’ son had just returned home for Christmas break, after studying intensely then taking final exams for the past week,” Dr. C said to me. “Not surprisingly, the 19-year-old said he wasn’t feeling well, and this time his parents were concerned. They asked me whether I could fit him into my schedule before Christmas. The college student told me some of his symptoms. Although I hoped it was something minor, I suspected a meningioma and sent him for an MRI. The young man was sent straight from radiology to emergency surgery because of the severity of his brain condition. He died in surgery and as the responsible physician, I signed his death certificate on Christmas Eve, before calling his parents.”

The emotion was in his voice. I didn’t want to look into his eye because I suspected tears.

What a doctor; what a man!

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