Lisa Smirl, a 37-year-old UK college professor, has died of lung cancer after doctors repeatedly dismissed her symptoms as “psychological.” Honestly, I’m not even sure what commentary I can provide on such a sad story, but it felt important to share it here, regardless.
According the The Telegraph, Lisa began experiencing symptoms like shortness of breath, wheezing, pain in her arm, and dramatic weight loss over the course of a year. At first, she was diagnosed with asthma, but she was also told that her symptoms were likely due to anxiety and depression (she was prescribed an antidepressant). The symptoms got so bad that she was forced to leave her job at the University of Sussex. Eventually, she was diagnosed with cancer after a doctor agreed to give her an X-ray. By that time, it was too late: the cancer had spread to her bones, brain and liver.
Lisa wrote about her experience on her blog, Stage V. She said:
How is it possible that a 36-year-old, health [obsessed] conscious, occasionally social smoking, middle class, fiancée of a doctor can develop metastatic lung cancer unnoticed. How?!?
I’d have to ask that myself. I can’t imagine how she must have felt, knowing something was wrong but having her concerns repeatedly dismissed by doctors. Reportedly, there were three physicians who refused to consider her symptoms as evidence of something more serious. By the time she was finally diagnosed in November 2011, her cancer had progressed to the point that it was incurable, only able to be “palliated.” She wrote on her blog:
I can’t prove it, and this is just my opinion, but I have no doubt in my own mind that my misdiagnosis was in large part due to the fact that I was a middle aged female and that my male doctors were preconceived towards a psychological rather than a physiological diagnosis.
It is so easy to say that someone’s symptoms are ‘anxiety’ related if they are a little bit complicated, unclear or unusual. Don’t repeat my mistakes.
I’m not advocating not trusting doctors, but there’s something to be said for following your own intuition, as well. After all, you are the steward of your own health and your own body. You know yourself better than anyone else does. What happened to Lisa Smirl is incredibly sad and also incredibly rare, but let us all keep her legacy alive by heeding her own warning:
You know when something is wrong. Find another doctor that you connect with and who takes your concerns seriously. Get referrals. Get tested. Refuse to be dismissed.
In November 2012, Lisa ran the Great North Run to raise money for cancer and she died four months later, at the end of February. It’s heartbreaking to think that if her cancer had been caught earlier, she might still be alive today.
Photo: Lisa Smirl’s blog