My client, Jennifer,* was 28 years old when she went to her gynecologist complaining of a strange, tiny pea-sized lump she felt in her breast. "It's probably nothing," is what she was told by her gynecologist, who sealed her fate when he also said that she was "too young for a mammogram," as he dismissed her from his office. He failed to order a diagnostic mammogram or ultrasound. He failed to refer her for a consultation with a breast surgeon. He failed to impart the importance of self-breast examination and the potential that this wasn't "nothing," or something to be watched. Two years later, she was diagnosed with an advanced stage of breast cancer. At 30 years old, with a fiancé and her entire life ahead of her, Jennifer began an aggressive course of chemotherapy and radiation. While we were litigating her medical malpractice claim, she was enduring seemingly endless chemotherapy and radiation treatments. While we were taking depositions, she was fighting for her life. While the message of "early detection saves lives" was being spread by non-profit organizations during 5K Runs and 1-Mile Fun Walks all across the country, she was facing certain death. Jennifer wasn't afforded the opportunity for early detection. Instead, that two-year delay resulted in Jennifer's death just before her 34th birthday.
That was over 15 years ago and a lot has changed since then. But has it really? Healthcare companies have produced more sensitive mammography equipment including 3-D digital mammography, MRI and PET Scans. Technology companies have developed computer-aided detection software to assist radiologists in finding suspicious lesions in the breast. And tens of millions of dollars have been raised by individuals -- dollar by dollar -- to help raise awareness that early detection saves lives. We've walked, we've run, we've held golf tournaments and pink tie galas all for the purpose of educating the public that early detection saves lives. Over 15 years ago, while I, along with my colleague Aaron Freiwald, represented Jennifer and watched her struggle for her life because her doctor told her that she was "too young for a mammogram," incredible progress was being made in the public by raising awareness about breast cancer. "Even 15 years ago," said Freiwald, "this tragedy should have been avoided." Together we've witnessed the grave consequences of misdiagnosis and delays in diagnosis of breast cancer, and know in our hearts that early detection can prevent young women from suffering like Jennifer suffered. "It's one thing to have never complained of a medical problem and then get a horrible diagnosis like this. It's another thing to go to your doctor and be told, 'it's nothing, don't worry about it,'" said Freiwald. Now that the public is being told that screening mammography in young women isn't saving lives, are we un-doing all the work that's been accomplished over the last two decades?
I share this story today as a tribute to Jennifer and as a shout-out to those individuals and organizations supporting the new guidelines for mammography, which propose conducting screening mammography later in life and with less frequency. These new guidelines undermine and confuse the messages that women have been hearing for over two decades: Early detection saves lives. The new guidelines are a slippery slope for a slow progression of change, where women will be denied access to mammography because insurance companies suddenly won't cover the costs of a mammogram for a woman under the age of 45. Or 50. Or 55.
Patient Self-Advocacy -- Steps You Can Take To Protect Yourself:
- Raise Your Voice! Challenge the new mammography guidelines because you are not a statistic (and don't want to become one.)
- Maintain Your Personal Health Records. Collect your mammography studies (films and/or digital) and corresponding written reports; request copies of your annual clinical breast examinations from your physician; store your personal health information in a safe place.
- Ask Questions. If something doesn't seem right, seek a second opinion.
- Know Your Legal Rights. In addition to the Patient Bill of Rights, you also have a legal right to your personal health information.
- Medical Mistakes happen every day. It is important to have the causes of these mistakes investigated in order o protect your legal rights.
- Be Your Own Patient Advocate.
Please share your comments and shared experiences! I will continue to blog about this topic, and hope that you will join me in reinforcing the message that Womens' Health Matters and early detection saves lives.
* To protect her privacy and legacy, "Jennifer" is a fictitious name for a true story about a real woman.