GP criticises colleagues who branded her a hypochondriac and failed to diagnose her cancer

'I am angry at being left in the medically unexplained wilderness'

Alexandra Sims
Tuesday 30 August 2016 22:56 BST
Dr Lisa Steen died in February after being diagnosed with kidney cancer with multiple bone metastases
Dr Lisa Steen died in February after being diagnosed with kidney cancer with multiple bone metastases (Raymond Brown)

A GP and mother of two, who died of a rare form of cancer after her condition went undiagnosed for two years, has spoken out about being dismissed as a hypochondriac as she searched for a diagnosis from her colleagues.

Dr Lisa Steen described her years of “wandering in the wilderness of the medically unexplained” in a posthumously published blog post.

She also criticised health professionals for being “reluctant to lay their hands on and examine a fellow medic” before she was diagnosed with kidney cancer in July 2014, by which time the cancer had spread to her bones.

The 43-year-old from Cambridge, who was a GP and had trained as a psychiatrist, had complained of a vast series of symptoms, including dizziness, visual disturbance, fatigue and memory problems, since 2012.

Lisa Steen with her family (Raymond Brown ) (Raymond Brown)

Despite visiting her doctor repeatedly from August 2012, her health problems were initially thought to be the result of “depression and health anxiety”.

She voiced her frustration at the way she was dealt with by colleagues, describing visits to specialists as “seeming fruitless” and “feeling like a goldfish with no voice. Watching doctors' faces glaze over at the multitude of symptoms. Trying to fit it all in with work and looking after my family.”

Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) online, Dr Steen said: “I do not know how long I’ll live. It probably won’t be for many weeks. But right now I am glad to be alive, I am grateful for the expensive drug which is holding back the cancer. I am angry at being left in the medically unexplained wilderness and I did not like the way my colleagues looked at me, when they believed me to have health anxiety.

“If anyone of the doctors I saw had gone another mile they would’ve stumbled upon it. I almost told them the answer; I repeated over and over my belief of a genetic syndrome linked to the carotid body, something related to it, but they were unable to hear the answer from a patient. They were reluctant to lay their hands on and examine a fellow medic.

Lisa Steen with her two children (Raymond Brown)

“I was disappointed in finding a very poor appetite for a diagnostic hunt, which may in part be the result of protocolisation and superspecialism. I disliked being unable to order my own tests, and I regret not pulling more strings. I was too embarrassed about my “psychiatric” condition, too confused by not having the whole answer ready.

“My story is a cautionary tale to all of us health professionals when we get ill. Illness is somehow not the done thing. It upsets our “them/us” belief system, which helps us cope with the horror of what we see. “We do not get ill, they are ill.” We are a lot more military than we realise.

“We are trained to keep going, as if there was a war on. Our workloads are superhuman, and we seriously do not appreciate it if those around us “slack off,” particularly those taking sick leave with depression or stress.”

Following her diagnosis, Dr Steen underwent chemotherapy, had a kidney removed and a hip replacement. She died in February this year.

Her husband, Raymond Brown, told the Telegraph: "They didn't seem to be taking her too seriously particularly because she had been diagnosed with health anxiety, she was being looked at as a hypochondriac.

"She just wants doctors to be aware when they are treating doctors to give them really good treatment and they have to be aware they are a patient and they don't know everything. They need to be treated like a patient, not like a doctor."

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