Beating the odds: lessons from a doctor and cancer survivor
Dr Lindy Dickson-Hall, a Capetonian mother of three, doctor and University of Cape Town medical microbiology TB researcher, is now 10 years into remission after being diagnosed with stage IV (advanced) colorectal cancer shortly after completing medical school.
Diagnosis: stage IV colorectal cancer
Dr Lindy Dickson-Hall had just graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and started working at Victoria Hospital in Wynberg, Cape Town, when she was diagnosed with stage IV colorectal cancer in 2009. Within a mere nine hours, she went from suspecting a ruptured ovarian cyst to a cancer diagnosis and radical surgery.
Her public and private sector colleagues at the nearby Life Vincent Pallotti Hospital knew her as a renowned gastroenterologist. It’s at this hospital that a CT scan revealed advanced colorectal cancer. It had spread into the surrounding tissues and caused a 2.8kg ovarian tumour to burst. She went straight to theatre, where a team of gynae-oncology and general surgeons were waiting for her.
Swift action saved the doctor’s life
“That same afternoon, the team performed emergency abdominal surgery and even saved the rest of my colon. The surgical team called in additional expertise to avoid a temporary colostomy placement,” Dr Dickson-Hall recalls.
“Two of my best friends and colleagues donated whole blood for me and I was up and about in the ward within a day. Thanks to the skilled team of nurses, medics, anaesthesiologists and surgeons, I was discharged uneventfully after having a total hysterectomy and sigmoid colectomy, with only four days in hospital!”
After six weeks and with no signs of cancer tissue remaining, Dr Dickson-Hall started nine months of adjuvant chemotherapy in the form of intravenous infusions and oral tablets. “I followed a vegetarian diet, increased my antioxidant intake, incorporated healthy complimentary therapies in between treatments in the form of reflexology and aquarobics, and saw a therapist to work through the emotions of my cancer diagnosis,” she says.
On the road to recovery
The doctor has been a Discovery Health Medical Scheme member for eight years. She explains that typically, stage IV colon cancer survivors experience frequent relapses and often have cancer metastases to manage in the years following initial diagnosis and management. To date, she has had none of these.
She follows a six-month surveillance schedule and remains on a high plan option to make sure that any possible losses in remission are picked up quickly and can be managed and funded optimally. She also exercises, follows a healthy diet, tries to manage her sleep and stress, and enjoys being in nature and by the ocean. She spends time with her animals, spouse, children and family, and listens to music to remain positive in her ongoing remission.
How to cope with cancer: lessons from a survivor
Dr Dickson-Hall says there are three things that can help cancer patients navigate the tricky terrain of having an illness diagnosis, understanding test results, and coping with treatment side effects:
- Adopt a mindset that you are embarking on a fascinating anthropological journey – that of a survivor of cells that have gone a bit wayward and need some culling and correcting.
- Have a pleasant, persistent, and determined attitude.
- Compile a portable personal folder (whether physical or electronic) containing funding codes, investigation results, support group details and other vital information.
She shared more from her bag of tricks designed to help patients take control and enable the best possible outcome.
Funding your cancer treatment
- Make sure you include your ICD-10 diagnostic code in the paperwork every time you have any blood tests, scans or procedures relating to your cancer.
- Register your cancer diagnosis with your medical aid as soon as you receive it. The oncology desk is super helpful and professional and they aim to help you.
- Don’t change medical aids once diagnosed, or you could face a year’s exclusion period by the new medical aid.
- Stay on your medical aid.
Coping with the side effects of cancer treatment
- Join a support group. Every province has cancer survivor support groups that offer a wealth of knowledge and practical support.
- Manage the nausea and constipation that often accompany chemotherapy by eating less bread and refined food, exercising, and taking prescribed medicine to reduce side effects.
- Arm yourself with experts’ contact details and information (put it in your folder).
- Prepare for “chemo-brain” or the exhaustion, mild confusion and minor memory issues that come with cancer treatment, and learn in advance how best to recognise and deal with it.
- Don’t plan too much for a day or three after chemo. Watch documentaries, listen to music or sleep until you feel up to it all again.
- If you are spiritually or religiously inclined, seek and tap into support and strength from this.
- Visit a social worker or a psychologist early to help you adjust. Bring along a partner or friend if you’d prefer.
”Be present and respectful”: how to drive the system
Dr Dickson-Hall urges cancer survivors to appoint a family member or close friend to be their advocate. “Appoint somebody who is physically and mentally able to drive the system with you when you’re not feeling well and don’t have the capacity.”
“Politely insist on keeping your own results, learning the names and doses of your medicine and getting the appointments you need. Keep a file of all your outcomes and your progress. If somebody says they’ll call you back and don’t, pursue it kindly. You have to navigate the system with respect, purpose, motivation and positivity. Otherwise you frustrate the people who are doing their best. At times, you may have to drive the system, persuade and facilitate. I’ve found that’s true everywhere, from the state to private sector,” she says. “Be present and respectful. Be interested in your own health. That’s how you will most likely succeed.”
“We have so much in the way of technology, resources and research available to us,” she adds. “As long as there is a strong, positive partnership between the patient, the family, significant others, medical professionals, funders and allied teams, there is a good chance of success in the cancer journey and beating the odds.”
Severe illness can be life-changing. Discovery is here for you
At Discovery, we understand that an illness like cancer affects many aspects of your life. If you're a Discovery Health Medical Scheme member who is diagnosed with cancer, you are covered by a comprehensive Oncology Programme. You'll also have access to a palliative care programme, which offers unlimited cover for approved care at home.
To protect you financially, Discovery Life offers the best dread disease product in the market for cancer cover, as awarded by the Independent Clinical Oncology Network. Our award-winning LifeTime Max 200% Severe Illness Benefit offers coverage across the full spectrum of severities and coverage for remission of a cancer. Contact us to learn more.
The Discovery Health Medical Scheme is an independent non-profit entity governed by the Medical Schemes Act, and regulated by the Council for Medical Schemes. It is administered by a separate company, Discovery Health (Pty) Ltd, an authorised financial services provider.
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