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How to use doctors...


I guess we all have our theories about health and disease.

At times I have been quite skeptical about Western Medicine - partly because doctors can come across as arrogant, and partly because I have had health problems which have not been helped by doctors, but which have responded to more holistic approaches of one kind or another.

I have to admit though, that in some areas, Western Medicine is extremely useful, and my attitude now is that the GP is one of the very first people I will go to if I'm unwell. I will go, listen to the advice I'm given, use my own common sense, go and talk to other health practitioners, and then decide what to do. Very often there is no disagreement between the different approaches.

A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with bowel cancer. I was in the mood to try 'alternative' therapies, but I became too ill too quickly and had no option but to submit to surgery in the end. Surgery works. I came round from the anaesthetic and immediately knew the cancer was gone. Immediately. I could feel that my body, which had been involved in a battle which it was very definitely losing, was suddenly at ease. The battle was over.

That experience has made me more respectful of doctors, and at the same time more skeptical. Some doctors are better than others. It's definitely worth getting more than one medical opinion. The way I achieve that is simple: my local GP practice has a half dozen or so doctors, and they share patients as a group, so although you can see the same doctor every time if you ask, I don't ask. I just see the first doctor who's available. That ensures that I get seen by different doctors.

There is a reason for that. A year or so before my cancer diagnosis I went to my GP about some symptoms I was calling Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I told the doctor that my father had had bowel cancer and that I was concerned about that. I also told him that the pain seemed to be centred around the middle of my transverse colon - near the solar plexus. That doctor reassured me that I didn't need to worry about colon cancer, and told me that the position I was indicating was the location of the stomach, and he would be more worried about stomach cancer, if anything. (I had also told him my brother had died of stomach cancer the year before.) He ordered up some blood tests, which were all pretty much normal, and we left it at that. I could have persevered I guess, but I thought, well I've tried the Western Medical route and got nowhere, so I'll try accupuncture next. Accupuncture did seem to help.

So a year or so later it turned out I was right (but I didn't win a prize.) I had a large malignant tumour right in the middle of my transverse colon. T4. Big. Almost completely blocking my bowel and already growing into my small intestines. That GP never admitted any kind of fault of course - and maybe there was none - but he was audibly relieved when, after the operation, I told him that no sign of cancer had been found in my lymph nodes.

The fact is he mis-diagnosed a life-threatening illness. Maybe he did nothing wrong and couldn't have been expected to do any different, but still, diagnosing serious illness before it's dangerously late is one of the main functions of a GP, and that didn't happen.

When I've told people I've had cancer, people have asked, "Did they catch it early?" Well, no, they didn't. The fact that I'm alive now, two years later, is a matter of luck. It might spread and kill me yet of course, but I'm beginning to allow myself to be optimistic.

But still an' all, I certainly wouldn't be alive now without Western Medicine. It's worth saying that none of the 'alternative' therapists I'd been seeing diagnosed the cancer either.

Also - and bizarrely, given that this was a large tumour - none of the several doctors who felt (palpated) my abdomen ever felt any 'lump' there at all, and this was despite the fact I was quite thin, having lost a lot of weight because of the cancer. I went into the operation weighing 10 stone dead and that's very light for me as I'm 5' 11" and fairly broadly built. My normal weight is around 12.5 stone. Equally bizzarely, a week or so before the operation, and more or less overnight, I did develop a large and painful lump or distension in my lower abdomen, but not where the tumour was. This was never explained; the sugeon found nothing to explain that and it went away after the operation.

Oh yes, and the funny thing was that when I found myself lying in hospital, just having had a tumour removed, expecting to possibly have a course of chemotherapy (I declined that as it happened) I had an odd thought: I thought, "Here's my worst nightmare come true. I've got cancer and I've just had half my bowel removed. I'm lying in hospital bed with tubes in every orifice, swollen up like a whale, and I'm, ...I'm fine." That was the surprise: that I was fine. Just another day. I realised that whatever happens in my life, it's just another day and I cope. In my imagination certain possible futures seem unbearable, but when they arrive they are never quite as bad as I feared and it's just another day. That was very clear then and the week in hospital was in fact a period quite free of any kind of worry or anxiety, but now of course I can think of lots of things to worry about again.

Copyright 2007-2011 Paul Mackilligin