Why Rita Wilson's Message Matters for Everyone

Rita Wilson arrives at the 20th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, in Los
Rita Wilson arrives at the 20th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

I met Rita once, and I remember thinking she was taller than I thought. Now Rita Wilson is standing even taller in my eyes.

Like Angelina Jolie-Pitt, Rita chose to share the details of her health crisis, using her celebrity to open a conversation. Also like Angelina, and Katie Couric before them, Rita will surely save lives by empowering others to seek second opinions and to play more active roles regarding their health.

Rita's example illustrates a relatively recent shift in health care, with decisions not handed down by the doctor from above but made by as a partnership between the doctor and the patient.

And this is important to everyone, because at some point we all are patients.

My mother's story was similar to Rita's. The biopsy was not for her breast but for a mole on her back. The pathology report came back, and did not seem alarming. But unlike Rita, Mom didn't get a second opinion.

This was decades ago, and back then patients would never dream of questioning a doctor or pathology report.

By the time a second pair of eyes saw the slide, and the early signs of cancer that were always there to be seen, it was already years later, and already too late. My mom died of melanoma at age 41.

So that was a lesson I learned early; that doctors are often heroic but they are also human. And humans make mistakes.

In no way is this meant to discredit doctors. Medicine is part science, part art, and cancer is an especially slippery slope. I'm gratified to see so many doctors seconding Rita's choice to seek second, and third opinions.

Yet in all the discussion surrounding Rita's story, I haven't seen much focus on the rest of her message.

What Rita said is exactly what I have been telling other patients in the 20 years since my own diagnosis with Stage III breast cancer: Listen to your gut... trust your instincts if something doesn't feel right.

Going with my gut 20 years ago was not easy. Being an advocate as a patient was rare and risky. It meant going against my doctor's advice and switching doctors in the middle of chemotherapy. It meant functioning as my own doctor until I found a doctor willing to treat me as a partner in my own health care.

Still my choices, like Rita's, were right for me at the time and in retrospect may have contributed to the fact that I am here to write this today.

So I continue to recommend the same message Rita delivered:

Patients often know best what we need. Trust your instincts and play an active role to advocate for your own health.

Rita's doctors respected her feeling that something didn't feel right. Seeing so many doctors support participation by patients in their own health care decisions and treatment is an indication of an enormous shift in medicine.

And Rita Wilson is now part of that shift. For standing up and speaking out, she deserves to stand tall in all our eyes.

Due to her history, Darryle Pollack has been a pioneer in health advocacy. For more about her upcoming book and to view her TEDx talk, see her website