"Some women are lost in the fire. Some women are built from it."
—Michelle K.
The Fire Within Blog
The High Price of Being Your Own Advocate

I’ve always encouraged women in pain to be strong advocates for their care, but after decades of push-backs and harassment from the medical community for doing just that, I’m starting to question whether advocating does more harm than good.

The U.S. healthcare system is flat-out busted because it revolves around making money rather than making people well. The standard of care model of medicine is tried and true as profit generating, while it cloaks itself in the deceit of what’s in the patient’s best interest.

While “individualized care” is touted, making great buzzwords for marketing material, whenever I elect something out of the norm, my healthcare providers harass and bully me to return to their cookie-cutter model. When I don’t comply, my “care” gets ugly, causing me physical and emotional harm.

I’ve bucked up against this thuggery for 39 years, the first 20 fighting an HMO. That was the trust breaker for me. After escaping that illness-provoking gulag, I felt certain that at last my care choices would be respected. I was wrong.

While a fresh pain management doctor initially helped, he soon pushed hard for interventions that I instinctively knew weren’t right for me. When I repeatedly said no to fentanyl, ketamine, two SCSs and an intrathecal pump, this MD often called to bawl me out before slamming down the phone. For a time I put up with his tantrums because he was the first doctor who validated my CRPS diagnosis. But at last, my health couldn’t take his abuse and I cut this jackal loose.

It gets worse. Twenty-two years ago when I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (aka, “Stage Zero” breast cancer), my oncologist told me I had three months to live if I didn’t undergo surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Because my CRPS was a ginormous complication and to me the treatment didn’t match the diagnosis, I chose to “wait and watch.” That doctor was irate, even calling my home to press me into “life-preserving” treatment. Perhaps worse, he never celebrated the reality that my “cancer” ultimately came to nothing. Over the years, I’ve watched DCIS become a controversial diagnosis because of the over-treatment associated with it. Wow, I was almost a statistic.

In 2019, when I was diagnosed (in the other breast) with real cancer, stage 2 triple-negative, my first thought was, “God, please no, please, please, don’t make me wrangle with the western healthcare system again!” In short order I learned that cancer treatment is the mother of all standard of care, and in this do-or-die arena, you don’t ask questions. You say, “Thank you, sir. May I have another?” Problem is, that memo, now and forever, means nothing to me.

Naturally, I was threatened with impending death during the six months I carefully researched and considered treatment (my tumor actually shrunk during that time.) Then, after being a “super responder” to chemo, I turned down the standard-of-care follow up surgery. My tumor was gone, confirmed by imaging, and all studies showed that I had a better chance of survival without going under the knife. I guess it won’t come as a surprise that every oncologist who crossed my path at that time said my choice was foolhardy, even madness, then chased that declaration with another death threat.

Boy oh boy, do I pay for sticking up for me. Since then, with every scan, they find a new “concern”, be it a shadow or “thickening” lymph node. One imaging doctor told me straight up that my cancer had returned and they expected me to jump back into their treatment assembly line.

I was this close to being spooked into that unnecessary surgery which, due to my CRPS, would likely have destroyed my life. Thank god a colleague questioned why they hadn’t done full scans to see if the cancer had spread first, stopping me in my tracks. Lo and behold, those scans were negative for any and all cancer. No matter. My doctors insisted on the operation, denying me a second opinion, the reason given, “Whether you have a malignancy or not, you have to do surgery.” I arranged for a second opinion at another hospital that confirmed I was cancer-free. Hallelujah!

During this hellish time, I paid the advocacy price in a new, heartbreaking way. I had a 15-year internist who I trusted with my life. In fact, she guided and supported me through all of my cancer treatment decisions. She alone respected the dangers of CRPS and recommended “de-escalation” whenever possible. The system didn’t like her interference though, and applied pressure. She dropped me as her patient when I needed her most. That was eight months ago, and I’m still working with a therapist, using guided imagery, hypnosis and EMDR, to unravel the trauma of that betrayal.

Despite it all, I move forward.

Decades into CRPS and a year and a half out of cancer, I’m surprisingly feeling tip-top. That is, until it’s imaging time when the pummeling takes an exhausting toll. My pain and IBS flare, I hyperventilate, stop sleeping, my body gets tight and I have anxiety attacks. I don’t dread the cancer coming back (make no mistake, that fear is REALLY bad) as much as I dread the doctors new “concern” and the ongoing communiques that keep me in a place of anger, resentment and un-wellness.

Reflecting on my chosen role as a self-advocate, I still think the pros outweigh the cons for women in pain. We need to be in control of our treatment choices, whether they’re bucking the trend or going with the flow. And just as important, we need to be ready to walk away from an uncomfortable care situation.

Despite my health advocacy nightmares, I have no regrets. I continue to make the best choices for me in this dysfunctional, profit-driven healthcare system. Still, I yearn for their support. I wish they’d care about and root for me. I wish they’d celebrate my good health. Mostly, I wish they’d stop harming me.

As I talk with other women angry about past cancer treatment they were coerced into, many who now deal with chronic pain as a result, I’m emboldened to continue speaking out about our fear-based model of over-treatment. My heart aches for them and for those who will come.

Fear and pressure should never drive our care decisions. The way I see it, the biggest mistake we women in pain can make is to sit on the side lines of care, to not do our job as advocates. If we hand our power over to the healthcare professionals and the systems that lord over them, we’re doomed.

The cost of compliance and victimhood is too damn high.