My patient did it her way

February 18, 2005

The author learns a lesson about serenity when a patient refuses treatment for her advanced breast cancer.

On a Saturday morning two springs ago, my receptionist, Debbie, arrived at our rural family practice around 8:00 a.m. to find an elderly woman waiting in the parking lot. She was dressed in a robe, nightgown, and slippers, and accompanied by a middle-aged couple.

Debbie ushered the family into the waiting room, and asked the woman-whom I'll call Mrs. Hamilton-how we could help her. Her son and daughter-in-law answered for her. They told Debbie that-except for the birth of her children five decades before-Mrs. Hamilton, now 88, had never visited a doctor. This morning's visit, in fact, was simply to appease them. "She just didn't seem like herself," they explained.

I felt uneasy when Debbie relayed this information. The family's feeling that something was amiss-along with their vague descriptions of Mrs. Hamilton's fatigue-didn't give me much to go on. Sorting out such inconclusive symptoms would likely prove frustrating. Nevertheless, I agreed to see Mrs. Hamilton right after I saw my first patient of the morning.

"You're going to be surprised, Doctor" Checking Mrs. Hamilton's blood pressure, I noticed extensive skin changes over her right anterior chest wall. Through her thin nightgown, I could also see a few marbled nodules covering her right breast. Her eyes caught mine, and she smiled, "You're going to be surprised, Doctor." I raised my eyebrows in recognition: This wasn't going to be a routine visit, I thought.

I sat down and took her history. She said that her right breast had slowly become engulfed by a painless, leathery rash over the past year. She'd let the process run its course, she said, since she lived alone and didn't want to burden her family.

But her fatigue had increased recently, requiring her to spend more time on the couch. She'd also noticed a swelling in her lower legs. Further questioning didn't elicit much more information.

My physical exam was more revealing. While Mrs. Hamilton's vital signs were normal and her neurological functions intact, her exam revealed enlarged axillary lymph nodes, multiple engorged nodules over her leathery right breast, trace bilateral rales, questionable hepatomegaly, and 2+ lower extremity edema.

Breast cancer, I thought, although I'd never actually seen breast cancer before, especially at this advanced stage. Until now, my experience was largely limited to mammograms. But a spot on a film didn't come close to having the same impact as the untreated pathology I saw before me now.

I conveyed my findings-that what I'd seen was overwhelmingly consistent with metastatic breast cancer-to the two women. The daughter-in-law became silent and visibly tense, while Mrs. Hamilton seemed almost bemused. Obviously, I was confirming something she'd known about, and lived with, for at least a year, perhaps longer. Her eyes again met mine-and I couldn't help but blink.

We talked over possible diagnostic and treatment options, but the patient wasn't interested in any referral or hospital admission. She agreed to a biopsy of the overlying skin, providing I would do it now.

Assisted by the daughter-in-law, I performed a 5 mm punch biopsy of the purplish, fungating breast tissue, suturing the defect with a single 4-0 interrupted nylon suture. I held the suture for the daughter-in-law to cut, and then both of us cleaned and dressed the wound.