Letter to the Editor
Re: We all let her die (April 22, 2006)
I know too well the profound sadness following the death of a teenager or young adult and the failure of the primary health care system to detect early, prevent needless suffering and tragic outcomes. Our daughter, Shanna, was diagnosed with metastasized breast cancer following months of excessive bone pain, increased symptoms of illness and parental concern. Shanna was not diagnosed until the breast cancer had spread microscopically from her breast to her bones and then to her liver. She died less than four months later.
Despite decades of early detection messaging, none of the three primary care providers (including our family physician) or the bone specialist that assessed Shanna had cancer on their checklist. Diagnosed with a common, benign condition we were reassured that she would be fine. On her third visit to the family physician with increased symptoms she was told “if she returned she would be put on antidepressants.” Shanna was so frustrated at not feeling well, my concern was heightened and I requested further testing. At this point an abnormal liver function test alerted the family physician to something more serious.
The system failed Shanna from the initial onset of symptoms. The physicians looked for what was common in an otherwise healthy 23 years old. When her symptoms persisted, the “weird, bizarre and out of the ordinary” were not ruled out. Cancer was not on their radar. Too many teenagers and young adults with cancer face months of misdiagnosis and valuable time against an aggressive, insidious, often fatal disease is lost. The cancer is allowed to win.
Other than having to live with the results of their decisions, there are no consequences for medical misdiagnoses. The system fails the physicians as well. Cancer treatment centres are not informing primary care providers of the teenagers and young adult patients coming through their doors. Family doctors need to be educated on how the cancer presents, what to look for and appropriate testing.
Shanna and others have lost their lives, their dreams and goals for the future. Their potential and that for society is also lost. Shanna was a skilled lifeguard, talented professional figure skating coach, artist and university graduate heading off to teacher’s college. She had a passion for life and working with young children. She is sadly missed. Family and friends are left to endure a relentless grief…a slow, sad journey of despair and loss.
The system we put our faith in and the medical professionals we trusted failed Shanna. Changes are necessary. Too many young lives are being lost. It is 25 years since Terry Fox tried to raise awareness that teenagers and young adults get cancer. Awareness is critical to alter outcomes. The time for change to our front line of early detection is long overdue.