Recent news that even a small bit of alcohol consumption increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer got me thinking. The authors of the study, published in early November in the Journal of the American Medical Association, talked in news media interviews about the fact that many respondents might actually have under-reported their alcohol consumption. They went on to say that it is very important to accurately report your lifestyle habits when your doctor asks.
So here’s what got me thinking. A few years back, I had a breast cancer scare. Perhaps the fear made me especially conscientious about reporting any bad habits – you know, fear being a powerful motivator and all.
When the nurse asked me about whether I smoked, I was able to honestly answer a resounding “NO!” When she asked whether I exercised, I was able to report honestly that I exercise at least five days a week. Then, when she asked whether I drank and how much, that one had me a little nervous.
I don’t know what it was – stress, too much travel associated with my job or just the plain seductive powers of alcohol and my own enjoyment of it – but I was a bit concerned about my alcohol consumption. During that time of my life, I was drinking probably seven to 10 drinks a week, way more than I ever did in the past. I had been a little worried, but, wow, with the thought of a 3 cm mass in my breast, I was really concerned. Time to ‘fess up and come out with the truth, which I did at that time and planned to continue to do when I later sought a second opinion.
It was a few months later when I sought that opinion. To prepare for my visit, I asked for records from the hospital at which I had previously sought treatment (I did not have breast cancer, but still had many questions about the mass). I got the records, checked them out, and there on the exam notes, it said that “patient reports having 10 shots of alcohol a day.” Holy moley! I almost fell off my chair.
In my first visit, I had disclosed to my nurse that I was consuming between 7-10 drinks per week. I was shocked to see such a glaring error when that number was erroneously reported as 7-10 drinks per day! The word “shot” also really got to me!
Images of me stumbling up to a bar, saying “hit me again, sister” came to mind. Ten shots a day? I wouldn’t have been able to work, drive or even eat, it seemed to me.
The incident brought home a few things to me. First, how important it is to be transparent with your medical team and to make sure you are aware of the content of your medical records. In hindsight, if I had seen my records earlier, I would have been able to correct the misreporting of my information. Furthermore, if the information they thought I disclosed about my drinking was alarming, I wish we would have discussed it. If this step had been taken, it would have clarified the errors in my records and also, would have made me feel more comfortable as a patient knowing my care team was on top of it and truly cared about me.
So when this recent news story came out about a slightly elevated risk of breast cancer existing in women who drink even moderately, I realized a few things. First, I need to take ownership of my health, including all my lifestyle issues and behaviors that can affect my risk of getting cancer. That means not smoking, getting regular exercise, little to no drinking, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, avoiding excessive sun exposure and maintaining a healthy body weight.
It also means enlisting the aid of my healthcare providers and asking them for help in my problem areas. And it means absolute transparency is required when I report my lifestyle habits – as is making sure my habits are recorded accurately! This has changed the way I think about who plays a role in my care. Through this experience I have realized that I must take part in and own my healthcare and partner with providers I trust are willing to help fill in any gaps I may leave behind.