When Illness Strikes: How to Get the Best Medical Care

We can now research our illnesses like never before. But whom do you trust, and where do you stop? Two women, one a cancer patient who took charge of her own drug research, the other a scientist who faced her own health crisis, show how they found their way

By Laurence Gonzales

Finding a LumpThe sun streamed into her hotel room as she stood before the mirror. Darryle Pollack brushed her hair and felt her heart clench like a fist as she watched the long red curls come out in great handfuls. She wondered how much more of this she could take."Losing my hair was worse than losing my breasts," she says. "I had waist-length, wavy, gorgeous thick hair. I loved my hair." Pollack had made some big changes over the years to put her life in order. She’d quit her job as a television reporter in Los Angeles. She’d divorced and remarried and endured a night of terror during the earthquake of 1994, running barefoot over broken glass to rescue her two children. The newly combined family moved to a house in Carmel. After a difficult transition, things had settled down at last. She was doing marketing for her new husband’s health-supplement distribution company. Life was good.Then, one bright Friday morning just before the Fourth of July, Pollack was taking a shower, thinking about the busy weekend ahead, her son’s 7th birthday party, and there it was. Just like that: a lumpy mass in her right breast, slick with soap beneath her index finger. Something inside her that didn’t belong. Where had it come from? How long had it been there? She’d had a mammogram only eight months before. She went to work, thinking, well, it’s probably nothing, but it needs checking. She called the only mammography clinic she found in the phone book. To her surprise, they wouldn’t see her without a doctor’s order. It struck her as ridiculous. She’d moved to Carmel less than a year ago, and didn’t have a doctor yet. She needed someone to look at this — now. Pollack went to a neighbor who was an orthopedic surgeon, and he ordered the test. Her son’s party didn’t give her much chance to worry that weekend. She went to the clinic Monday and thought it odd that they asked for a second film. Still, she felt no real sense of alarm. Only later that night, when she saw her neighbor standing at her front door with the film in his hand did she feel the fear, liquid and trembling, settle in her stomach.Misdiagnosis? They sat on the couch in the family room, and he spread out the films. He said he didn’t know much about breast cancer, but if she were his wife, he’d get her to a surgeon. "My immediate feeling was: They made a mistake again." Again meaning her mother, who died of cancer after a malignant melanoma was misdiagnosed. Two days after her mammogram, Pollack was on a plane to Los Angeles, having arranged a surgical biopsy through her former doctor.She found herself sitting on an operating table in the white light of a cold steel room wearing a hospital gown, "and I really didn’t have a good feeling about the surgeon," she says. "It was a gut feeling, my personal reaction to him." Pollack didn’t like the way he spoke to her husband before addressing her. In less than 48 hours, she felt her body, her autonomy, had been taken from her. Nothing catastrophic happened — not a very good scar, but that wouldn’t matter soon: The biopsy was positive; she needed a mastectomy. Still, she resolved that it would be the last time she’d passively allow medical professionals she didn’t know or trust to dictate what happened to her. "I’m a good girl," says Pollack, who is now 55. "I always follow the rules." But now there was too much at stake. And it felt good deciding to take charge. It felt right. Finding another surgeon was simple compared with what lay ahead. There were several types of cancer in the same breast, and the disease was clawing into her lymph nodes. Soon she had an oncologist (whom she liked and trusted) telling her what he thought she should do by way of chemotherapy, recommending a slightly higher than normal dose. But there was a debate going on at the time about whether an even higher amount was better, and neither Pollack nor her oncologist could be sure how much would be enough."Almost immediately, I had to become an expert on high-dose chemotherapy," Pollack says. She began calling all over the country to researchers at Duke University, UCLA, Sloan-Kettering, to learn more. "Basically, this was my full-time job."She visited a prominent oncologist at UCLA who looked at her file and recommended that she quickly enter a high-dose program. "He scared me so much.

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