10 Questions That Could Save Your Life | Reader's Digest

10 Questions That Could Save Your Life

What you need to ask the doctor when every moment counts.

By Pamela F. Gallin | MD from Reader's Digest | February 2007

Lorie Levy’s previous mammograms were difficult to interpret because of her dense breasts. Her mother had died of breast cancer, so Lorie, 49, was anxious and wanted to cover all the bases. Although her mammogram was deemed normal, she asked:

“Can I have an ultrasound even though my mammogram was negative?”

Sure enough, the ultrasound showed a suspicious lesion that was missed on the mammogram. Further tests confirmed it was indeed cancer. Today, five years later, Lorie knows that because she caught the tumor in its earliest stages, she received the right treatment and is now cancer free.

The lesson here is not that ultrasounds are better than traditional mammograms. In fact, it’s the combination of the two that yields the best results. Mammography is still the gold standard for screening, and new technologies, such as breast ultrasound and MRI, may enhance the effectiveness of screening and diagnosis.

“Breast cancer screening is not one-size-fits-all,” says Freya Schnabel, MD, chief of breast surgery at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “It needs to be individualized–to the particular patient, her risk of breast cancer and the density of her breasts. Mammography alone is not always the most sensitive test for a woman with dense breasts, and ultrasound can be a useful additional test. If a woman is at very high risk, an MRI may be appropriate. But this is an expensive resource that has lots of false positives, so it’s not for everyone.”

Before your internist or gynecologist schedules your mammogram, make sure to discuss your health situation and ask about ultrasound. Together, you can determine if additional, more sensitive testing is required. And before you have a biopsy, ask for hard copies of your test results and get a second opinion.

Stroke
After the onset of a stroke, you have a three-hour window of opportunity in which clot-busting drugs could save your life and reduce damage. Stroke symptoms can occur all over the body, but most strokes occur in the brain. Signs include sudden difficulty speaking or mental confusion, inability to use an arm or a leg, and facial paralysis, usually on one side. You can also have a mild stroke with less dramatic symptoms, but it’s just as important to treat. As soon as you think you or someone you know might be experiencing a stroke, call 911 and at the ER ask:

“Could my mother be having a stroke? What about giving clot-busting drugs right now?”

Every 45 seconds, someone in the country has a stroke. Clot-busting medication called tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) dissolves the clot so that further damage is prevented and existing symptoms may be reversed. Unfortunately, this medication must be used within the first three hours of a stroke, so don’t dawdle: Be an impatient patient, get to a hospital ASAP and ask for this lifesaving medicine. Make sure you’re thoroughly screened afterward so you can find out why this happened in the first place.