Lessons I’ve learned from a colon cancer patient

I have been installed as President of the Alabama Academy of Family Physicians. The work should not be too hard and on occasion should be rewarding (or at least ego-boosting). Such was the case the other day when the executive director asked me to recall a patient from “my early days” that had made an impact so he could publish my thoughts, thus officially making me an old geezer. I thought back, thinking of the the heavy snow drifts I walked through to get to the hospital (unusual weather in Portsmouth), recalling the large hill that I had to walk up to get both there and back, and this was the patient’s story I chose.

In April of 1987 when I was an intern at Portsmouth Naval Hospital I saw a 54-year old male patient for fatigue and discovered a previous diagnosis of iron deficiency anemia. He was again anemic. He was subsequently found to have stage 4 colorectal cancer for which he received treatment. About 6 months later I admitted him from the emergency department (where I was working after finishing internship while waiting for training in undersea medicine) with jaundice. The ward team provided aggressive care but he died anyway.

The sad part of the story is that this patient had been seen by one of my intern colleagues in July of 1986 (the first month of our internship) for a complaint of fatigue. An iron deficiency anemia was initially found at that time. He was placed on iron, felt better, came back for follow-up, and was discharged from care. No follow-up to identify the cause of the anemia was done at that time.

Though the snow is less in Mobile and the hills less steep, the lessons I took away from that patient are still indirectly shared with every resident and student I teach:

1. Quality care should not be dependent on specialty or level of training. My colleague should have consulted with the attending physician who was sitting in an office on the unit (and may have). My colleague could have read about the work-up of anemia after the visit and called the patient back. Being young and inexperienced, he appropriately treated the symptom but did not look for the disease. Avoidable mistakes such as this are not acceptable. We try very hard to put systems in place in our practice so that when the patient receives care, regardless if delivered by a faculty member or from a trainee, it will be predictable and of high quality.

2. Colon cancer is not a pleasant way to die. This patient was diagnosed with a rigid sigmoidoscope (a firm, hollow, silver tube about 2 feet long). Though we knew that early detection of cervical cancer saved lives, we knew little about early detection of breast and colon cancer. We now know that through use of colonoscopy and home stool testing, lives can be spared. I would like to believe that this patient, who was of an age that screening is now indicated, would have potentially been spared this death as the result of a caring family physician facilitating this screening. In our practice we have made early detection of eminently treatable cancers such as this a priority. We all work to assure that our patients have access to these screening tests.

3. We are all going to die. Having a terminal illness makes this likely to happen sooner. There comes a time to move to comfort measures. I want my faculty, residents, and students to be advocates for our patients in disease prevention and treatment. We also need to be advocates for moving from cure to comfort when it is appropriate. In my patient’s case, the Naval Hospital was his provider. We did not make that transition easy for him. I am afraid to say we have not gotten much better at this in the last 25 years.

Allen Perkins is Professor and Chair, Department of Family Medicine, University of South Alabama.  He blogs at Training Family Doctors.

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