Dear Dr. G.:
It has been 12 years since that day in your office, when you dismissed a pea sized lump in my right breast. Before I spoil what became of that lump, I am going to back track a bit.
I was one of your first patients, when you started your practice in Beverly Hills about 17 years ago. You were eager and excited about helping women through child birth and whatever other issues they presented. You were a fantastic ear and a good doctor.
I left Los Angeles shortly after establishing a rapport with you and returned a few years later, in 2005, because I had gotten engaged to a man who had remained in California. Most of my prior support system was no longer here, I was having some issues with painful sex and I had a lump in my breast. So I made an appointment to see you.
This is a day I will never forget. I walked into your office feeling afraid and alone, really hoping to see the doctor I had known so many years before. But you were not there. Or at least your warmth wasn’t. You treated my visit much like an encounter at a cocktail party, almost looking over my shoulder to see if there was someone better to talk to, even though we were the only two people in the exam room.
I told you about discomfort with sex and you asked me if I really loved my fiancé. When I said I did, you mentioned another patient who had had a similar problem and, it turned out, wasn’t in love with her partner. I then told you about a lump that was concerning. It was small, it was hard, it was nothing you said after kneading around it for a minute. Plus, you said, I was way too young to worry about something like breast cancer. I was 33. After that you rushed through the rest of the exam and had me meet you in your office once I got dressed. This was the fun part. We could shoot the shit and you could introduce me to your next patient who was tangentially related to the entertainment industry. It was amazing how far you had come.
What wasn’t amazing was the way I felt when I walked out of your office. I was confused, insecure and not less anxious than when I had arrived. I can’t fault you for not offering the same kind of support or comfort as our past visits. Your bedside manner had changed. And, in my opinion, not for the better. But that was the doctor you had chosen to become. I can, however, fault you for carelessness. For using your fingers and opinions as a diagnostic test. What would it have hurt to have ordered a mammogram back then?
I went through years hearing your words in my head – that it was nothing – even as the lump grew. I was meek, I was afraid to assert myself and truthfully, I probably didn’t want to know it was something. Until another lump appeared under my arm. That was 5 years later. I was almost 38. And you guessed it, it was cancer. It was in my breast and had spread to my lymph nodes.
I was resentful at you back then but, rather than look backwards, I chose to put one foot in front of the other with chemo and surgery and radiation and surgery again and hormone therapy. Through all of that I learned to be my own advocate, something I didn’t know how to do when I saw you back in 2005. I learned how to do research, get second opinions, ask for tests I thought were necessary even if they weren’t readily recommended. And for all of that I thanked you in a weird way. It was a hard lesson. A terrible lesson but I swore never to put my health and wellbeing squarely in someone else’s hands again.
I was upset that maybe I could have escaped with a lumpectomy and medication instead of the barrage of treatments I had to undergo. But I was willing to let all of that be the past. Until summer of 2015, when the cancer returned: in my bones, my liver and my brain.
So now, Dr. G., I am a stage IV breast cancer patient. Do I know that I wouldn’t have gotten here if you had ordered a mammogram on that day in 2005? No. I know there is no guarantee but my odds would have been better. My chances of living a cancer free life would have been much higher. So I am writing this letter to let you know this.
The lesser part of me wishes you would stop practicing. The lesser part of me is calling you out on your arrogance and ignorance. I sent a lot of patients your way, most of who ultimately left you because of their own experiences with you. Some of those experiences were fatal. The lesser part of me feels better for pointing that out.
The better part of me wishes you well. It hopes that you move forward more responsibly. That you take my story and the story of others you have affected to become a better doctor. You are in a position of power and I hope you recognize that. Not just with your ability to diagnose and write prescriptions but with your words as an expert and someone people look to and trust.
I do hope that somehow this reaches you. I hope that you think of me every time someone comes in with a breast abnormality and every time you write a prescription for a mammogram. I also hope you are writing those often. That very small action, that scribble on a pad of paper could have changed the trajectory of my life. While I missed out on that opportunity, please do give that to the women who come to you for guidance and care. You can’t do anything to make this right, but that would surely help.
All the best.