Monday, November 30, 2009

Two Years

Tonight is the second anniversary of my father's death, according to the Hebrew calendar.

My mom, Zach, and I spent the evening together, which seemed the most appropriate way to honor my dad's memory. After lighting the yahrzeit candle, the three of us went to dinner at a neighborhood restaurant that my parents had visited together several times.

At the end of our meal, an elderly man came in and sat down with his dinner companion at the table next to ours. He was wearing a dark blue Yankees baseball cap, very like the one my dad used to wear. I don't know if it was a sign, or just a coincidence, but it made me smile all the same.

My dad was a creature of habit, and he wore his Yankees cap all the time when he went out. When he sat down somewhere, he'd take off the hat and slip it into the sleeve of his jacket for safekeeping. Actually, he always called it his "Yankee" cap, emphasis on the singular.

The funny thing is that my father was actually a Mets fan (well, a "Met" fan—again, singular). But the Yankees hat was a gift from my sister, and filial devotion dictated that he wear it, no matter what his athletic allegiances might be.

And that says all you really need to know about my dad. He loved his family, and he did everything he could to make us happy.

Somehow, he managed to do it again today.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Neither Calm Nor Cool

I had a good scare over the past few weeks, when an on-again, off-again pain in my hip took on a life of its own, raising the specter—in my own mind, anyway—of another trip down cancer lane.

My hip has been tender, as if it had been bruised, but I couldn't remember a mishap or collision or anything else that would have caused the pain. It's not swollen, or black and blue—just sore when I lie on it or turn the wrong way. And the pain isn't consistent—sometimes I feel it, and sometimes I don't.

I am normally quite serene in the face of symptoms—I get them checked out, and if there's something to deal with, I deal with it.

But this time I was a wreck. I worried that the pain was a sign of metastasis—that the cancer had not only returned but spread to my bones. And once I had that thought, I couldn't shake it.

I called my doctor's office on a Monday morning and was advised to have a bone scan—a first for me, although it's a test that cancer patients commonly have. I expected to be told to come in for an examination, but the nurse explained that since I'd had the pain for a couple of weeks, the bone scan was the appropriate next step. Somehow, that only inflamed my anxiety—it seemed to validate my fear that this was a high-stakes situation.

Things got worse when I wasn't able to schedule the test right away. Phone tag with the scheduling department and pre-certification with my insurance company took a couple of days. Then I had to wait almost a week for the first available appointment. All the while, my mind leapt to unsavory conclusions, simultaneously wearing me down and out.

I avoided talking to friends and family. I avoided blogging. I didn't want to say or write anything until I knew what was going on.

Every evening during that long week of waiting, Zach and I watched hours of television to keep my mind from wandering back to the abyss and diving right in.

Rather than return to work after the test, I decided to take the whole day off. Somehow I knew I'd be too distracted—or distraught—to function at the office.

I craved the certainty the test results would bring—a clear exit from the limbo I'd been laboring in. Liberation finally came late the following afternoon, with word that there was no sign of cancer in any of my bones.

I surrendered the breath I'd been holding tight and inhaled the sweet fragrance of relief.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A Scorecard for Health News

Among the many excellent sessions at the Project LEAD Workshop I attended two weekends ago was a talk by Dr. Karen Carlson, who happens to be an expert on women's health. She's the Director of Women's Health Associates at Massachusetts General Hospital, an assistant professor at (and graduate of) Harvard Medical School, and a co-author of The New Harvard Guide to Women's Health.

But Dr. Carlson's talk wasn't actually about women's health. Instead, she told us about a very cool organization called Health News Review, which focuses on the quality of health and medical journalism—a subject dear to my heart.

Health News Review grades individual stories from about 60 different news outlets, following a model that was pioneered in Australia and then replicated in Canada. It's funded by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making.

Reviewers judge stories on 10 specific criteria, and their assessments are translated into scores on a scale of zero to five stars. The criteria include everything from whether a story is guilty of "disease mongering" to the fundamentals of reporting. Is it based on just a press release, or were additional sources interviewed? Do those sources have any potential conflicts of interest? Is the new treatment/test/product/procedure really new? Is it even available to most people? What does it cost? What are the potential harms? Are there alternatives?

You can browse a list of graded stories by news organization to see how your favorite newspaper or wire service has fared. You can also check on past grades for television news stories, although the organization won't be reviewing TV news programs anymore—they've basically decided that it no longer makes sense because TV news is so bad and isn't getting any better.

Dr. Carlson told us that Health News Review shares its reviews with the news organizations—providing feedback to encourage those organizations to improve their reporting. In many cases, she said, the editors and journalists appreciate that feedback and strive to do better. But with TV news, apparently, that's not the case. Some stats:

The site has reviewed nearly 900 stories by 60 news organizations and has given only 40 zero-star scores. Of those stories—the worst of the worst—ABC, CBS, and NBC account for 68%. And the same networks account for only two of the 108 five-star scores Health News Review has awarded in the past three and a half years.

Think about how many people get their health and medical news from TV news programs. Then think how damning it must be for a group whose sole mission is to improve media coverage to have given up on such an influential sector of the media.

Imagine if Jon Stewart decided that FOX and CNN and MSNBC were lost causes, no longer worth the resources of The Daily Show—that shaming and satirizing them was futile. How much more superficial, hypocritical, and bombastic would those networks' coverage become?

Check out the site. Read with a critical eye. And don't get your medical news from television, no matter how urgent the promos sound.

Sensationalism may sell, but you don't have to buy.