Three headed frogs and other anomalies

I had a doctor appointment the other day.  I needed to find a new primary care physician.  My previous physician decided to turn his practice into a boutique practice – good for him. 

As my new physician entered the room, I initially thought she was another patient stepping into the wrong exam room. I abruptly acknowledged her presence and then asked if I could help her, thinking she was lost.  She smiled and said, “Well, that’s a twist.”  The next thing I knew I was ten minutes into a  20-minute conversation talking about her recent surgery for cancer – a desmoid tumor.  She is 44 years old with a 7-year old son. 

What struck me was her demeanor.  When she entered the room her shoulders were hunched, she was soft spoken, not with the typical business like approach many doctors will take on a first greeting. I could tell the recent cancer diagnosis and surgery had taken her thunder.  She went on to share, “I always thought I was a compassionate person, but not until I had gone through an actual cancer diagnosis and this surgery did I realize what my patient’s really go through.”  She paused.  Took a deep breath and then continued.  “Enough about me, how are you doing?”  

“Desmoid tumor, I never heard of it.” “Only 900 are diagnosed a year, making it extremely rare,” she replied.  I repeated the number to make sure I’d heard her correctly.  “Yes, 900,” she repeated.  This means out of every one million people, two to four people are diagnosed with the tumor. There isn’t any cure. She’s bracing for a lifetime of surgeries.

In graduate school I studied preventive medicine and environmental health. Many of the required courses were environmental toxicology and epidemiology (study of diseases in human populations).  When I heard 900 cases a year, I immediately thought of the photos of frogs with three heads or six legs I had seen in my toxicology classes.  Each occurrence was considered a freakish anomaly, being used by my professor as an example of something going horribly wrong in our environment.  

I wondered, a 44-year old physician with an extremely rare cancer, doesn’t this fall into the “freakish” category? Or, in order for something to be considered concerning and warranting serious attention, do we humans have to start growing three heads?

Each time I hear of a young friend, or acquaintance, or read about a celebrity who has recently been diagnosed with cancer, I recall my initial meeting with my new physician and wonder when will enough be enough and our shock and concerns resonate loud and long enough to be heard collectively, as if we’d seen a three-headed frog.

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