Happy Holidays, You Might Have Cancer

It was the day before Thanksgiving. The menu was planned, the shopping done. I planned on baking pies and chopping vegetables once I got home. Only a few patients to see that day, one a new patient. Usually my NP doesn’t see new patients, as initial evaluation is left to the physician.

She was flustered about seeing this patient she’s never met. Rushing into clinic to see the NP usually means something is urgent. This particular patient was highly symptomatic following a procedure by another provider. Unable to provide an explanation for her sudden shortness of breath, that provider referred her to our clinic.

The sudden onset and change in her symptoms frightened the patient and her husband. A young woman who enjoyed exercising was panting after walking less than 10 feet. Looking over the results from labwork, procedures, and imaging didn’t reveal a clear picture. She looked at us, pleading for answers with big, round eyes. She held her hand tight as her husband helped answer questions so she could catch her breath.

Imaging showed an abnormality, not explained by the most common diagnosis. The suspicion arose for cancer, though more testing would be needed. By the way her face fell, she had obviously not considered such a disastrous possibility. Her procedure was supposed to be simple and easy. From a cardiac perspective, it had been successful. Now she and her healthcare providers were forced to contemplate more malignant causes.

Despite working in a medical clinic, I’m not accustomed to seeing my patients die. We primarily see patients with atrial fibrillation, a treatable and manageable disease not likely to be the sole cause of death. The interventional team has to worry about death from heart attacks, while the heart failure team deals with high risk transplant candidates or LVAD patients. Cancer is usually handled by outside physicians specializing in other bodily systems and/or oncologists.

Right before the holidays, even the most remote possibility of cancer seemed devastating. It was difficult to hold myself together for the patient’s sake.

One of the research physicians suggested that I begin hospice volunteering. Despite all my research and reading book after book about death, I have little experience with confronting the ultimate partner to medicine. Perhaps it’s best I heed his advice.

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