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Surviving cancer: Become your best healthcare advocate

Jennifer Chidester

After six years, having two children, seeing half-a-dozen doctors and being ignored — even smirked at — when pressing for answers, I’ve learned two things.

Jennifer Chidester and Lucas

First: No one will ever make your healthcare a priority unless you do. Second: Your instincts and knowledge of your own body will serve you better than any physician, no matter how many degrees on their walls.

Go ahead, Google it

Before my cancer was finally confirmed, countless friends, family members and doctors told me not to Google my symptoms. I didn’t listen.

While I didn’t obsess over it, I often turned to the internet when my instincts told me I wasn’t getting all of the answers in a doctor’s office. Sure, you might risk stressing over symptoms, but you might also get answers. The research I did online ultimately gave me the knowledge and the courage to finally ask my doctors if they were overlooking cancer, specifically Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, because my symptoms consistently lined up with what I read on websites and health forums.

I learned by reading other people’s stories that I needed a CAT Scan, ideally a PET Scan, and that all the blood work and X-rays that my doctors kept falling back on wouldn’t give me all the answers I needed. I knew I was in the right hands when the internist who finally helped me told me to research Hodgkin’s Lymphoma online after I was diagnosed. “You need to know what you’re up against,” he said. He was right.

Research your treatment doctors

There’s no way around it — being diagnosed with cancer is terrifying. The last thing you need is to be stuck in a system of red tape or placed with doctors who don’t specialize in your particular cancer. Before you commit to a doctor or hospital, do your research. If there’s a cancer treatment center within two hours from you, consider it over your local hospital. In my experience, it’s worth the drive to be seen in a place where the institution and the doctors’ only focus is managing and curing cancer. If you don’t know where to start, ask your doctors where they would go if they were diagnosed. Compare doctors and centers, check credentials and reviews online, call the chair of the department, pray about it… do interviews if you need to. You’re entrusting these doctors to save your life and you deserve to know you’re in the right hands.

Ask questions, then ask some more

Even the best, most attentive doctors are pressed for time, so make your time together count. Before every doctor’s appointment, prepare a list of any questions you might have. If someone goes with you, make sure they help you get through all the questions. Sometimes you hear things in doctor’s appointments that rock your world and the last thing you think of is to take notes. That’s where your support system comes in! If you have more questions, call your doctor. Don’t worry about bothering them — that’s their job. Your job is to get answers, lessen your anxiety and focus on getting well.

Know what to expect next

Fortunately, my doctor did a great job of outlining my expected course of treatment, telling me when to expect check-up tests and what I should expect over the next four to six months. If not, I would have been lost. My life was suddenly flooded with all things cancer and quickly revolved around commuting to surgery, appointments, treatments and scans. Knowing what I should expect along the way makes the almost unbearable just about manageable!

Bottom line

Knowledge is power. While there are wonderful, incredibly conscientious doctors out there — like the internist who finally helped me and the doctors working diligently to save my life right now — I might not be savable had I listened to half of my doctors and continued to ignore the growing symptoms that were plaguing me.

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