(Part four of four musings on vanity’s role in my life.) Finally we come to my final vanity: Vanity about smarts.
I have always considered myself a smart person. Besides this, I have had to navigate in the medical world, specifically the world of breast cancer, on and off since 1995. Before my diagnosis of metastatic cancer in November 2013, I had been in graduate school for midwifery for a while – wondering if some courses, like pharmacology, were ever going to really come in handy in my life as a homebirth midwife. The midwifery program involved a lot of researching studies, learning how to critique them, and understanding the value and limits of statistics. So when I had to switch my focus from midwifery to cancer, it turned out that all of this grad school stuff was hugely useful.
It is important to me to keep track of new studies that might be relevant to my case, which makes a lot of sense because we might find something useful that way. But for me it’s also about showing my doctors that I am comfortable in their world and using their language and jargon. When I meet a new doctor, it doesn’t take long for me to use a big medical word or otherwise indicate that I have some medical background; I can see people changing how they talk to me after that. I seek out doctors who like to teach; that means they are open to questions and being questioned, and will be patient with my need to go deeper into explanations and probably a lot of patients want.
Two things made me notice this vanity of mine about smarts: last summer, faced with a variety of weird symptoms that started all at once, I figured out that it was related to the vagus nerve. My oncologist and others gave me other explanations, but they didn’t make as much sense to me based on what I knew about the vagus nerve and what had happened in my body. Eventually I went to an ear, nose, and throat specialist who put a camera down my nose and looked at my vocal cords. Based on what he saw and what I told him about my symptoms, he confirmed that the vagus nerve had caused the problems. I was probably the only patient he saw that month who high-fived her husband upon being told she had vagus-nerve damage. But I was so pleased with myself! I had figured it out with my knowledge of anatomy and physiology and my careful observation of my own symptoms.
Then later in the year I got pneumonia. One day I felt really rotten and short of breath without knowing what was wrong; the next day, when I went to chemo, I insisted that they checked my oxygenation level even though they don’t usually do that along with blood pressure and temperature. The number that the pulse-ox machine showed got me a quick ticket to the emergency department instead of chemo that day, and I was admitted for treatment for a few days. What makes me a bit proud about this is that I figured out something was wrong pretty early in the disease process, so I wasn’t too miserable and it was pretty easy to get rid of.
Another thing we did with smarts (Eric helped) was to create a spreadsheet to track my brain mets. The written reports were hard to compare and I noticed the radiologists who were writing them were sometimes failing to write follow-up notes on mets that had been seen in a previous scan and listed in a previous report. Tracking the mets this way just seems more organized–thus less likely to lead to mistakes–so why not do it? Since the doctors won’t, I do.
So I feel pretty vain about being smart in this realm that I am forced to inhabit. Sometimes when I don’t feel energetic enough in the brain to engage at this level, I wonder how I will adapt if I ever lose the sharp, medical-smarts part of me for good. I know there are cancer patients who do none of my self-education and don’t ask a lot of questions, and that must be fine for them. But for me the educated back-and-forth and discovery of interesting new studies is part of this whole experience–a part that buoys me up.