Posted by: notdeaddinosaur | April 18, 2017

The Saddest Encounter

I had an upsetting encounter the other day with a 22-year-old woman of color, who mentioned (secondary to the purpose of the visit) that she was pretty sure she had breast cancer.

Why did she think that?

She’d found a lump in her breast.

(Somewhat unusually for the specific setting, she let me do a breast exam. All I felt was a small area of lumpy breast tissue, possibly a fibroadenoma at worst. Of course I would recommend ultrasound and possibly excision, but I wasn’t acting in the capacity of her primary care physician.)

Had she seen a doctor about it?

No.

Why not?

The answer that sent my jaw to the floor:

Cancer means you’re going to die, and the only thing the doctors want to do is give you chemotherapy to make you as miserable as possible for as long as possible, so they can make as much money as they can off you.

No, she was not being sarcastic, or ironic, or anything but sadly sincere. I was taken completely aback.

I pulled my chair around to the other side of the desk, and asked her to give me her hands, which I held tightly while gazing straight into her eyes. As sincerely and seriously as I possibly could, I told her that no, that’s not what doctors did. At least none of the ones I know, and I know a lot of cancer doctors, every last one of whom is a particularly shining example of the best of the warmth, caring, and compassion to be found in the medical profession.

And saddest of all: I don’t think she believed me.

So yes, apparently in this day and age, there is still widespread belief that:

  1. Cancer is uniformly and universally fatal,
  2. Doctors inflict suffering for the sole reason of making money, and
  3. Making money is the only reason doctors treat cancer.

What can one little dinosaur do? Other than hold someone’s hands, gaze deeply into their eyes, and pour my soul into every word, not much else. I can only hope.

Edited to address comments: 

Tom F.: 
[F]rom what you’ve told us here, you spoke to one person and concluded that what she told you is somehow “widespread belief”. Either provide some more details or brush up on the fallacy of hasty generalization.

Further dialogue:

Me: Why do you think that?

Her: My mom told me. Everyone knows it. And I watch documentaries.

Elle:
I was waiting for an explanation of why her skin color played into the story, but I saw no explanation. Just curious why that detail was added …

Documented issues of distrust between the African American and medical communities here, here, and here. Many more easily googled. Prior to this, I’ve probably been hopelessly naive, making this a sad wake up call.

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Responses

  1. Oh. My. Goodness. How sad.

  2. I agree it’s sad that she thinks that. But, from what you’ve told us here, you spoke to one person and concluded that what she told you is somehow “widespread belief”. Either provide some more details or brush up on the fallacy of hasty generalization.

  3. There are a lot of people out there whose only experience of medicine is people talking about things they don’t understand, causing pain and confusion and not always ending up with a good result. It’s easy to read that as intentional if you don’t know what’s going on.

  4. It’s good that you were so compassionate and earnest in trying to persuade her. Did you offer her a referral? Also, I was waiting for an explanation of why her skin color played into the story, but I saw no explanation. Just curious why that detail was added …

  5. cancer is not always that you are about to die if it gets detected at the early stage it can be cured with medication without chemo and losing your hair.
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