Cancer Patients, Lost in a Maze of Uneven Care
The first doctor gave her six months to live. The second and third said chemotherapy would buy more time, but surgery would not. A fourth offered to operate.
Karen Pasqualetto had just given birth to her first child last July when doctors discovered she had colon cancer. She was only 35, and the disease had already spread to her liver. The months she had hoped to spend getting to know her new daughter were hijacked by illness, fear and a desperate quest to survive. For the past year, she and her relatives have felt lost, fending for themselves in a daunting medical landscape in which they struggle to make sense of conflicting advice as they race against time in hopes of saving her life.
“It’s patchwork, and frustrating that there’s not one person taking care of me who I can look to as my champion,” Ms. Pasqualetto said recently in a telephone interview from her home near Seattle. “I don’t feel I have a doctor who is looking out for my care. My oncologist is terrific, but he’s an oncologist. The surgeon seems terrific, but I found him through my own diligence. I have no confidence in the system.”
It was a sudden immersion in the scalding realities of life with cancer. This year, there will be more than 1.4 million new cases of cancer in the United States, and 559,650 deaths. Only heart disease kills more people.
Cancer, more than almost any other disease, can be overwhelmingly complicated to treat. Patients are often stunned to learn that they will need not just one doctor, but at least three: a surgeon and specialists in radiation and chemotherapy. Diagnosis and treatment require a seemingly endless stream of appointments. Doctors do not always agree, and patients may find that at the worst time in their lives, when they are ill, frightened and most vulnerable, they also have to seek second opinions on biopsies and therapy, fight with insurers and sort out complex treatment options.
The decisions can be agonizing, in part because the quality of cancer care varies among doctors and hospitals, and it is difficult for even the most educated patients to be sure they are receiving the best treatment. “Let the buyer beware” is harsh advice to give a cancer patient, but it often applies. Excellent care is out there, but people are often on their own to find it. Patients are told they must be their own advocates, but few know where to begin."
No confidence sums it up well