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The Power of a Question

So often when we receive information from our doctors – whether it’s a diagnosis, medical advice or a treatment plan – we tend to accept what it is that we’re told. It is only natural for us as patients to assume that the doctor, an expert in their field, is giving us the most accurate information available to them. However, it is only after we ask questions about what really matters to us as the patient that we can fully understand if this information being given is really what’s in our best interest.

My mother was in her 80's when she was diagnosed with colon cancer for the third time. At this point, she had already undergone two colon resections – a procedure where they shorten your bowel to remove any cancerous tissue.

The treatment plan for this third diagnosis was seemingly typical: chemotherapy and radiation. My mother accepted the results and the diagnosis as we often do and endured the pain and discomfort of chemo and radiation to her aging body. The combination of the treatment and the previous resections resulted in extended stays at the hospital where she was treated for dehydration. My mother was strong-willed, but her body was becoming weak.

At this point, she made the decision to stop the chemotherapy and radiation plan the doctor had mapped out for her. She decided with the help of her family that her quality of life wasn’t worth the suffering, especially if this treatment that was wreaking havoc on her body was only meant to extend her life 6 more months at the most. But when she spoke with her doctor about this decision, he recommended that she continue the treatment because, “she only had 5 or 6 treatments left anyway.” This decision to overrule my mother’s wishes and continue the treatment plan is ultimately what led to her untimely death. The cancer isn’t what killed her, the treatment was.

This experience left me with a lot of feelings and questions but one that stands out today is this: What would have happened if we had asked more questions about the recommendation of treatment? What would have happened if my mother had simply said no to the treatment all together?

As patients, we don’t always feel comfortable asserting ourselves in this way – asking more of the diagnosis, telling the doctor you don’t agree with what they’re recommending. If my mother had simply said no to the treatment plan, she may have lived longer and had a better quality of life in her last days. Or perhaps we could have found a less conventional treatment method.

What I’ve learned from this experience is that while, yes, doctors are experts and I respect what they do, no one knows your body, or your story, better than you do and its ultimately up to us to advocate for ourselves. A diagnosis is life changing, but the treatment can be equally as life changing; if the treatment plan doesn’t make sense at first, or its not working out in some way, we should feel the autonomy to dig deeper and find out why this plan has been recommended and if it is in our best interest.

Asking questions may be uncomfortable at first. Maybe you’re not even sure what to ask. But the importance of gathering information and making your own decisions about your life is ultimately what is going to give you control of your situation. No one is suggesting you become an armchair MD, but even just asking for a second opinion can open your eyes to new information and different treatment options.

In my next blog, we’ll discuss how to gather your own information and how to determine what information you can trust and what misinformation you should steer clear of.

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