Pictured Above: Kim and Dr. Courtright on her last day of chemotherapy.
I know from personal experience as a breast cancer survivor, as well as witnessing my mom and aunts take care of my grandma for many years, that we must become our own advocates as it relates to our health. Often times, our doctors and other health care professionals might unintentionally speak to us in their own language made up of acronyms and alphabet soup that only they can understand.
Cancer taught me the importance of becoming an advocate, asking the hard questions, taking action and being proactive. I am happy to say that I am now in complete remission because I was my own advocate. I had been doing my monthly breast self-exam, felt the lump and took immediate action. I learned from the day of my diagnosis that it was important to be my own advocate and take control of my own health and life — no one else was going to do it for me. Not only do I believe my own patient advocacy allowed me to get the best care possible, it empowered me and gave me more control over my disease . I was advocating on my own behalf and feel that improved the quality of health care I ultimately received.
In the area of health and wellness, there are many ways to become an advocate. Advocate for yourself. Advocate for a family member or friend. Advocate for others who may not be able to speak for themselves. The lessons I learned throughout my own breast cancer experience about becoming a patient advocate are tools that you can apply in your own life.
Arm yourself with information so that you can be an educated patient or caregiver making informed decisions.
Do your homework. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I read everything I could get my hands on. I searched the internet seeking, reliable information. I spoke to dozens of cancer survivors seeking their advice asking them what choices they’d made and why. I interviewed doctors. I learned everything I could so I could make the best decision for me, and I realized that every medical situation and in my case, every cancer is unique.
Build your medical team and establish strong communication with your doctor.
Realize that you are a part of the team. Talk openly about symptoms, treatments and goals. Remember, this is a partnership where there should be trust, respect and honesty. At times, I would challenge my doctors and ask why they were choosing treatment X over treatment Y. They respected me as a patient and as a member of the team. Come prepared with your questions and make sure you understand the answers. And remember that no question is “dumb.” The only “bad” question is the one you wish you had asked. Never feel embarrassed to ask a doctor to define a word or speak in a language you can understand. During my treatment, I found that it was difficult to absorb information when I heard it for the first time. I started bringing a tape recorder to my appointments (note this was before the current technology like being able to record things on our phones) with my doctors so that I could review it later and make sure I heard everything correctly. I’m sure my doctors hated to see me coming, but I wanted to be a part of the team. I also always had my husband or someone else go along with me to all of my appointments. Take a friend of family member with you. They can be there for support and lend another ear to hear information you might miss. Realize that your doctor is human and at times, they do make mistakes.
Don’t be afraid to get second opinions. A good doctor should welcome your request for a second opinion.
Now is not the time to be polite and worry about hurting the doctor’s feelings. When one of my doctors was not answering my questions, I got a second opinion and ended up changing doctors. Don’t be afraid to get second opinions or third opinions. Do whatever it takes to feel good about the decisions you are making. You know your own body better than anyone else – listen to it.
Take care of you first.
As women, we are often the main providers for our children’s health and well-being, help manage our partner’s health needs and are taking care of an aging or sick relative. We take care of everyone else first and then, if time allows, we take care of ourselves. The problem with this approach is that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others. You’ve heard the saying “if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Well, if momma ain’t healthy, ain’t nobody healthy.
I encourage each of you to not only find your voice, but make it heard when dealing with your health care. You could be saving your own life or that of someone you love.