In the summer of 2007, my wife Annie started suffering from fatigue and pain in her legs. In the evenings before we went to bed, I would sit on one end of our couch and she would lay down with her head at the opposite end stretching her legs out so I could massage them until the pain subsided a bit. This wasn’t just on occasion; it was every night. At the time we had a thriving antique shop, but it got to the point where she could no longer help me run the shop due to her aching legs and fatigue. Eventually we went to our family doctor, who did some blood work and said that everything looked normal. However, that did not address the fatigue and tiredness.

By the end of that year our family doctor decided to send her to a specialist on Fibromyalgia, which is widespread musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue. I went into the examination room with Annie as I wanted to be sure we did not misunderstand what she was saying. She acknowledged that she felt like something was wrong with Annie, but said she looked so good and healthy she felt it wasn’t anything serious.

missed-diagnosisNot being satisfied, as the pain seemed to be getting worse, our family doctor sent her to an osteoporosis specialist. The doctor and his nurse laid her out on the bed and checked her over thoroughly and also said they felt something was wrong but couldn’t put their finger on it. The x-rays showed what he thought to be Osteoporosis in her ribs, but her legs looked okay. Once again, we were told that based on how well she looked she couldn’t be too ill, and that her osteoporosis was not severe enough to cause the sort of pain she was expressing.

So here we were trying to convince her family doctor and specialists that she wasn’t well, but it seemed to go on deaf ears. And of course we didn’t want to rock the boat.

In January 2008, while we were having a bite to eat, Annie was sitting beside me at the dining room table. She dropped her napkin on the floor and when she reached down to pick it up, I heard a snapping sound. She had just broken one of her ribs by bending over and picking up a napkin. I took her over to her family doctor and he took some x-rays. Her rib was indeed broken, so he put a wrap around her, which in this case was standard treatment and put her on pain pills. Then in February while washing out the bathtub she broke another rib. In March we were at the market, she leaned over and picked up a carton of orange juice and we heard the rib break. After the third rib breaking when we went to the doctor she drew several vials of blood. Annie’s blood counts were now unstable, so she was given vitamin K, which the doctor thought might help.

We were starting to get frantic, but what could we do? When the blood counts were unstable, although I didn’t know it at the time, that should have been a huge red flag, in conjunction with the ribs breaking. But to make matters worse her doctor sent off a cancer smear for analysis and it came back negative for cancer. Of course, I know now that the smear by design had a high probability of not detecting Annie’s cancer. Still, as crazy as it may seem, after having second opinions with the specialists, we just kept our faith in the doctors that they would find and sort out the problem.

April came rolling around and Annie decided to fly to California and take a day trip to Catalina Island with her sister and brother-in-law. She could do that as her pain pills kept the pain under control. On her way back to California from Catalina she was leaning over the rails letting the sea mist cool down her body, when she broke another rib. She decided to leave California on the quickest flight out and come home. By this time her blood had many deficiencies. Over the next month and a half a team of doctors at the clinic put all they could into figuring out what was wrong with her but never could. Then one afternoon in early June Annie received a call from her doctor, and I’ll never forget this call, saying, Annie I’m so sorry but I need to send you to the cancer center. Annie asked her if she thought she had cancer, and the doctor said no, but that her blood is acting very strange and they were all out of ideas.

ANNIECATALINA Cancer Trap

This picture of Annie was taken on April 19th, 2008, two months to the day she was given a prognosis of 3 weeks to live, and on her way back from Catalina Island before she broke her fourth rib. There’s no doubt in my mind that part of the problem getting her to the cancer center was the fact that even though she had many medical problems she didn’t present herself as a person with cancer. Even in pain Annie always found a way to bring out her beautiful smile. And having a cancer that often gets diagnosed too late compounded the problem. I look at her picture now and I can see the darkness around her eyes where she was tired and hurting from the cancer eating away at her bones, and compromising her bone marrows ability to produce healthy blood cells. And of course was the reason the ribs were breaking. On rare occasions multiple myeloma can be misdiagnosed as osteoporosis.

On June 19th, 2008, when she received her diagnosis it was symptomatic, aggressive multiple myeloma. Her bone marrow was over 80% malignant plasma cells. That is about as bad of a diagnosis there is with any blood cancer. The oncologist’s nurse told me that they had been going over Annie’s medical records for two days and could not figure out why she was still alive.

To this day, the fact that she had so many problems and didn’t get diagnosed until it was too late still haunts me. Multiple myeloma is a treatable, but not curable, cancer when caught early enough. Folks live for several years. In Annie’s case, all the warning signs were there as far back as 2007, but overlooked.

This whole article is basically a “Cancer Trap.” Don’t get caught in this trap… Be proactive in your health care. And if your doctor can’t give you a diagnosis in a reasonable amount time, don’t walk away from him or her, run. Go get some help. I made many mistakes based on ignorance, I hope in some way this article has given you the necessary tools to avoid this cancer trap that happens more than you know. Annie’s oncologist made that clear to me when he got the results of her tests and shook his head in disgust. Ethically he couldn’t say anything, but it was written all over his face.

If you’re still reading this, understand what you’re reading or ask questions. It is a fact that every 3 minutes a person is diagnosed with a blood cancer, and every 10 minutes a person dies from a blood cancer. It doesn’t have to be that way. Know your body. You can and should be your own best advocate when seeking health care. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind, just do it diplomatically. Annie and I were afraid to make waves, and look at the price we paid.

Written by Bob Harrison
Bob Harrison was raised in the heart of the Redwoods in the far northwest comer of northern California. The little town of Crescent City, California was located near some of the world’s tallest trees, with the west shoreline being the Pacific Ocean. Bob spent most of his time fishing the two local rivers where some of the finest Steelhead and Salmon fishing is located. He was also well known up and down the north coast as an avid motorcycle racer, winning several hundred trophies, and one Oregon State title. Bob graduated from Del Norte High School with the class of 1966, then spent a one year stint at the College of the Redwoods, before having a strong sense of patriotism and joining the United States Air Force. After three years of service, Bob met Annie, the love of his life, and they got married in England in 1972. Bob’s love of country pushed him on to what turned out to be a very successful career, retiring in 1991. Bob’s last military assignment was Wichita, Kansas, a place he and Annie decided to call home. Together they developed and ran two very successful antique businesses until the stranger knocked on their door and changed their lives forever; “Because of Annie.”

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2 Comments

  1. I found this fascinating too, as my 48-year-old bf has Stage 4 cancer and has had no luck with radiation or chemo. As a result of these treatments failing, he now has two ostomy outlets to deal with, and his bladder and prostate were removed, still leaving him with a tumor attached to his pelvic bone. He is very resilient, so he has only really shown thloss of weight and muscle. He often comments how annoying it is, though, to have people respond by, “really, you don’t look sick…,” when he informs them of his cancer.

    Reply
  2. Thank you for sharing your story. My daughter has several chronic illnesses that took over a year to diagnose (in fact 2 are still “suspected” as we wait for confirmation from specialists. Although these diseases are not fatal, her entire life is changed. She went from being a normal, healthy girl to a disabled young woman struggling to find a way to work with the pain so she can have a happy, productive life. We have learned that the medical world has many good doctors, but when diagnose gets tricky the number of good doctors shrink exponentially.

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