My sister Kerry has been undergoing treatment for Stage 3 Ovarian Cancer for the last several years. She has done remarkably well (multiple rounds of chemo and multiple surgeries) and has exceeded the expectations of her medical team. When she was first diagnosed, she was treated at UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco, and felt like she was receiving exceptional care. Later, she moved to Florida to be closer to my parents, and began treatment at a local community hospital that has a comprehensive cancer center.
Over the last year, Kerry has expressed doubts about the sophistication of the cancer program at the local hospital and wondered if they were doing everything that could be done for her. Among other things, it concerned her that the cancer center had no clinical trials for ovarian cancer. She also felt that their diagnostic equipment was outdated, given what she’d experienced at UCSF. So, for the last year, I’ve suggested that she visit a major cancer center for a consult and a review of her treatment plan. At the very least, this would help to put her mind at ease. She looked at a number of different options, including a few that I recommended (MD Anderson, Duke and UNC), and surprised me a couple of weeks ago by announcing that she was heading to meet with the team at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Right away! I was elated to hear the news, in part because I have worked with MD Anderson and hold the organization in high esteem, and in part because Kerry was taking charge of her situation rather than simply let things happen to her.
Last week Kerry headed out to MD Anderson. Before leaving she seemed nervous and apprehensive. I called her on her second night in Houston and she was thrilled with her decision. She sounded empowered. She was glowing. Suddenly she had the resources and expertise of a major cancer center at her finger tips. And they will remain a resource long after she returns to her home in Florida. Prior to this, it seemed that she felt trapped and uncertain of the path she was traveling. That’s never a good thing, particularly when it is your life that’s on the line.
So today I am celebrating the power of an informed second opinion. And I am grateful to everyone at MD Anderson for taking such good care of my sister. The care provided at most community hospitals today is solid (exceptional in some cases), and certainly not every illness requires a trip to an academic medical center. But, when the need arises, healthcare consumers should feel comfortable seeking out the expertise available within major academic centers. It is not a betrayal to seek out a second opinion. In fact, it can be a smart thing to do. Programs have limits and strengths. But not all programs are good at encouraging patients to seek out other options with greater resources and/or expertise in a specific arena. In those cases (and many others), the patient has to be his or her own greatest advocate, get educated and seek out alternatives. Power to the patient!