The deadly power of denial, part 4: Denial isn't just for patients
Then, as Michael Corleone said in the Godfather, Part III, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." ("They" being patients, of course.) [As always, details about patients and how these events happened that don't affect the core of the story have been altered.]
It all started when I got a phone call from the nurse practitioner who worked with one of the oncologists. It was about patient whom I had operated on nearly three years ago for an early stage breast cancer and hadn't seen in about 18 months. This patient was a relatively young woman (under 40) who had had multifocal node-negative disease that had required a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. She had undergone postoperative adjuvant chemotherapy without too much difficulty and had been doing well. From what I could gather, this patient had called the oncologist and was very concerned about a palpable "gland" that had popped up in her neck. Normally, in a cancer patient, such an observation would make us all think, "Uh-oh," but the story was complicated by the additional history that she had recently had an upper respiratory infection and not long before that, dental work. Neither the nurse, nor the oncologist, nor I was particularly concerned (at least not yet), although the nurse was asking me if I could see the patient that day. I told her that, unless it was an emergency (which it clearly wasn't), I couldn't see the patient because it wasn't my clinic day and I had surgeries scheduled later. In fact, I even suggested that, given the upper respiratory infection, this could easily be a reactive node and that she should perhaps wait a couple of weeks to see if it resolved as her infection resolved. None of the medical staff seemed to have any problem with that recommendation, as it was medically appropriate, and the patient was told that we would see her next week.
That was all very well and good. Very reasonable and medically appropriate. But we sometimes forget that, if you're a patient who has survived cancer, lurking in the back of your mind is a dark fear, fear that the monster that you had thought banished from your body may in fact have never left and may one day return from the hidden places in your body where it has been lurking, biding its time and waiting for a chance to re-emerge and strike again. That fear is always in the back of a cancer patient's mind. Time may diminish it, but it never goes away completely. Cancer patients, even the ones who are fortunate enough never to recur, carry that fear to their graves. Whether the monster is truly gone or not, fear of the monster remains. As health care professionals, intellectually, we may know that this feeling exists in our patients, but we don't feel it viscerally as the patient does. It doesn't wake us up at night in the dark hours late at night when we are alone. We don't worry about who is going to take care of our children if the monster returns.
You can probably see where this is going. The patient was persistent. I, of course, gave in, and saw her early on a Monday. I went into the exam room still thinking that this was probably just a reactive lymph node from her upper respiratory infection, that I could reassure the patient by doing a fine needle aspiration to show that there were only lymphocytes in the node, no tumor.
Then I examined her.
She had a rock-hard, 2 cm supraclavicular lymph node on the side of her mastectomy. It wasn't soft and rubbery, as reactive nodes, even very large ones, usually are. No doubt the doctors who frequent this blog know what that means, but for those of you who don't it means (almost certainly) a tumor recurrence in the lymph node in her neck. It means metastatic disease. It means the tumor has recurred as metastatic disease.
It means death, because metastatic breast cancer, although treatable, is not curable. And she isn't even 40 yet.
I'm afraid my reassuring facade must have slipped for a second when I felt the node, because I briefly met her eyes and her eyes widened. She knew. In retrospect, I think that had known all along, from the moment she had first felt it in her neck. I did a fine needle aspiration of the node (which ultimately proved the diagnosis I had feared) and called the oncologist, who saw her and concurred that the node was very suspicious. Tests were ordered, and, once again, the patient's life could never be what it was before. Why had I not accepted more rapidly what the patient had been trying to tell all of us? Why had the nurse been so willing to agree with me? I can't speak for anyone else but me, but I suspect it was because neither of us wanted to believe that a young woman who had been apparently successfully treated for a "curable" cancer was not, in fact, cured.
Denial isn't just for patients, you know. Doctors can feel its power as well. I'm not sure if that's what was going on in this case, but in retrospect there probably was an element of denial in my initial reaction. I just didn't want to consider, at least not as the first explanation, that my patient's cancer had recurred, and that I was powerless to do anything about it. The surgery had gone so well; she had had an early stage cancer. She had tolerated the adjuvant chemotherapy quite well. By all expectations, she should have had a very high chance of living to a ripe old age. Also, the most likely explanation was that this was a reactive node, given her upper respiratory infection, and treating it as though that's what it probably was was not wrong. Waiting was not the wrong thing to do, and, in reality, even if we had waited two weeks to make the diagnosis, it would not have made any difference in her medical prognosis. In fact, part of me almost thinks that it might have been better for her if she had let us persuade her to wait.
At least then she would have had two more weeks during which she could at least have the hope that the monster hadn't returned.
In this case, though, the patient knew better. Now I know better as well. The patient may not always be right about her disease, but she often is. In the future, I will try to listen better.