They Told Me My Child Might Have Cancer And It Nearly Killed Me

My husband and I have been blessed with healthy children. We’ve had a few trips to the emergency room but they are big and healthy and strong. A few months ago, when I was out of town, my husband somehow detected a nodule in our youngest daughter’s neck. I wasn’t worried about it but he was. He read that it could be serious but, given how healthy she was, we figured we’d just ask about it at her upcoming annual visit to the pediatrician.

At the pediatrician’s office, they did the typical exam and told me she was at the 95th percentile for height and weight and seemed perfectly healthy. Did I have any questions? I told the nurse practitioner I did have a question and explained about the growths my husband had found in her neck. The nurse practitioner’s demeanor darkened. She laid our 3-year-old down on the table and felt the growth. Then she ran out of the room. Keep in mind that we literally waited 45 minutes in this room for our initial visit. That’s the type of pediatrician’s office it is. But in under a minute, a doctor came into the room and felt the growths and asked a series of questions. Everyone was very serious. No one was explaining to me what was going on but I could pick up on their rather obvious concern.

The doctor told the nurse practitioner to call the lab and explain that our daughter was to have expedited appointments for blood work. There was typing into the system, phone calls and lots more questions. I was instructed to call the lab and make a series of appointments for various bodily fluids and to arrange as quickly as possible for biopsy by working with one of their three preferred pediatric surgeons. “Biopsy?” I asked, hoping for much more information. “Yes,” the doctor explained. So I spelled it out, “I’m sorry, what are they looking for?” And then the doctor responded, as if it was no big deal, “Oh! Lymphoma.” And at that, I felt weak in the knees.

I immediately texted my husband and he immediately began beating himself up for not bringing our daughter in the moment he found the swollen lymph nodes. I tried to reassure him, pointing out that the doctor had said it was just wonderful that the node had been detected early, but he freaked out.

I immediately made appointments for the blood work, getting in around noon the next day for the first round. I told a few family and friends and their reactions were, more or less, to freak out. Only my dear sister remained calm throughout our whole ordeal. My parents began checking in on our daughter roughly 12 times a day. I could see the worry in their faces when we chatted via Skype. I called a friend of mine, a pediatric nurse, so that she could calm me down. She always calmed me down whenever I worried about anything. Instead, though, she responded to the news with, “Oh I’m so sorry. How are you guys holding up?”

When we had our daughter’s bloodwork done, the technician seemed to question the work order since it required so much blood. “Why would they need so much blood from such a little girl?” he asked. He looked through some more of the paperwork and then turned to me, solemnly, and said, “Oh I see.” adding, “I’m so sorry.”

But the thing was that after our initial freakout about what we were testing for, my husband and I were fairly confident that our daughter was fine. You know how you do that thing where you spend 15 minutes on WebMD to look up some symptom and you end up wondering if you have a fatal brain tumor? Well, this was the opposite. Our daughter had literally no symptoms other the swollen node.

I won’t bore you with the tales of the battery of tests she went through but after a few weeks of drama, we met with a pediatric surgeon who put an end to the madness. He reviewed the tests and looked over our daughter and explained to us that she was fine. He told us that there are thousands of reasons why nodes might become swollen and that it can take a very long time for them to return to their more appropriate size. He said that the presence of swollen nodes alone was no reason to react so dramatically and that it was clear from her general health that she would be fine. To be sure, we have to go back in six months for review, but my husband and I aren’t worried.

We are worried, however, about a couple of things. One is that the bedside manner of countless medical professionals could use serious improvement. It may be daily work for you to deal with sick children, but at no point in the process did any medical professional reassure us about our daughter’s condition — and frequently they did the opposite. That’s just inappropriate, whether or not our daughter was sick.

The other thing is that we kind of realize that the dramatic overreaction and check for cancer probably had something to do with how litigious things are in the States. These doctors are so worried about being sued and losing their practice that they had to have our daughter checked for cancer even though even a halfway good pediatrician would have known she was fine and didn’t need expensive tests. It’s worth thinking about some of the waste, inefficiency and unintended consequences of medical malpractice suits.

But the good news is that our daughter is fine and we learned a bit about navigating the medical community.

(Photo: Sherrie Smith/Shutterstock)

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