I’ll try to briefly present the most helpful tips and lessons I picked during the ten months before this whole story started:
- 1 – If you feel a pain, wait a day or two, a week at the most, but then go to the doctor (those ten months would probably have made a big difference for me).
- 2 – Tumours of the pancreas present symptoms which differ a great deal from one person to another. They are often diagnosed quite late, for the very reason that the symptoms are so vague. Rapid weight loss is frequent, though in my case it didn’t occur. I lost weight because I adopted a new, healthier lifestyle, but for many people weight loss can be an important warning signal. Back pain that comes and goes, alternating with a stomach ache, is another sign, and the same can be true for high blood sugar, though not always. In my case, this last factor proved to be very important.
- 3 – If you have a family doctor who is not a good listener, who does not know you well, who doesn’t take the time to reflect on what you tell him or her, then find a new one. A good family doctor can make all the difference, such as that between you, the patient, having to beg your doctor to prescribe a CT scan and having, instead, a doctor who urges you to get the scan, because he or she has a suspicion, and so they see to it that the exam is scheduled on an urgent basis.
- 4 – If you live in Rome and you have an urgent need, your family physician can set up an ultra-sound exam or a CT scan in the space of 48 hours. There are long waiting lists for such exams, it’s true, but if you really need one urgently, they always manage to fit you in. I have no experience with how things work in other parts of Italy, but I imagine the rules are more or less the same.
- 5 – To return to the question of the family doctor, he or she is the key to everything. The family doctor makes the first diagnosis or has the first suspicions of what might be ailing you. He or she recommends how you should proceed, whom you should contact. The family doctor knows what facilities and structures are available in your neighbourhood, as well as who are the best specialists. He or she knows where to go to get a good CT scan. They also know the ins and outs of the laws and bureaucratic red-tape tied to healthcare.
- 6 – In the medical world, you can find physicians who will dismiss you with phrases like, “You’d better get yourself a surgeon”. The hard part is learning how to react to similar behaviour. It took me months to get myself to the point where I was always respected, right up to the next to the last time, just a couple of months ago, when I had to raise my voice because I couldn’t manage to schedule the appointments for my next chemo sessions, and in response the oncologist on duty looked at me disapprovingly before saying, “Ma’am, why can’t you act like the rest of the patients?”.
- 7 – In my family, we test positive for the Brca2 germline mutation, the one that Angelina Jolie has, to put it in popular terms. My sister figured out as much by observing the cases of breast and prostate tumours suffered by a maternal aunt, my mother, a female cousin, an uncle. I didn’t want to hear about it, but since then I’ve learned not to stick my head in the sand. It’s better to know how things stand than to pretend that they don’t exist, in the hope that they’ll just go away. I’ll come back to that very important point, but for now the main lesson is: prevention.