Skip to content

50+: Live Better, Longer

Font Size

For Your Health, Assert Yourself

WebMD Feature

March 26, 2001 -- After doctors diagnosed Richard Farrell with colon cancer in 1996, he underwent surgery and then chemotherapy. With the affected portion of his intestine removed, he thought he was on the road to recovery. But in 1999, more tumors were discovered. His surgeons said these were not operable and sent him back to his oncologist. She talked to Farrell about a regimen to make him comfortable but not cure him.

"'Palliative' is what she called it," recalls Farrell, a 67-year-old retiree who divides his time between Amsterdam, N.Y., where he worked 30 years as a senior food inspector for the state, and Florida, where he escapes the cold winters. The more his oncologist talked about making him comfortable, the more uncomfortable Farrell became. "I don't like the idea," he blurted out. Next thing he knew, he heard himself saying, "I want to go to Memorial Sloan Kettering."

Recommended Related to Healthy Seniors

Caregivers, the Elderly, and Driving

Transportation can be a sensitive and tricky issue for elderly drivers and their caregivers. How do you know if your loved one is still safe to drive? How will he feel when he no longer has the freedom to go where he wants? And if he can't drive, are you thrust into the role of chauffeur, or are there other options? Here are some tips for caregivers to consider. Have an open dialogue. If it's possible, caregivers should keep their loved ones involved in the discussion about driving. Find...

Read the Caregivers, the Elderly, and Driving article > >

His oncologist knew physicians at the renowned New York City cancer center and referred Farrell, who ended up in a clinical trial to test a new chemotherapy regimen, which for him turned out to be fairly successful. During his last exam, doctors told him they found no evidence of new tumors. But scans indicate there is a now a spot on his lung, and whether that represents something to worry about remains to be determined.

Through it all, Farrell, who is still on chemotherapy, says he tries to stay positive, buoyed by the support of his wife and four children. What does remain constant, however, is his take-charge attitude, which began the day he decided he didn't want to go home and just die.

Taking an active role in your healthcare is good for you, research suggests. The more actively involved you are in your healthcare, the better your results tend to be -- and the more satisfied you feel, according to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). But developing an assertive attitude is not always second nature, especially for seniors who grew up in the "Doctors are God" era.

Fortunately, help is at hand. Growing numbers of patient advocacy organizations are springing up, ready to guide consumers through complaint processes or refer them to other sources of help. Agencies such as the AHRQ, a part of the U.S. Public Health Service, are producing guides on becoming an active patient. And patients like Richard Farrell are sharing their stories, inspiring others to emulate them.

Educate yourself

Before his diagnosis, Farrell says, "I knew absolutely nothing about colon cancer." And, he admits, at first he behaved a bit like a sheep. His doctor said he needed surgery, and so he checked in as soon as possible. During the recovery period between surgery and his first appointment with the oncologist to discuss chemotherapy, he had a lot of time to think. He swung into research mode. "I got on my computer and began to find out quite a bit," he says. "By the time I went to my oncologist, I was very well informed."

It's important to note that not all information on the Internet is accurate -- and just because a treatment is available, it may not be right for you. But besides making efforts to educate yourself, Farrell says, it's important to let your doctor know you're doing it -- and that you don't want to be an uninformed, passive patient.

Today on WebMD

Eating for a longer, healthier life.
romantic couple
Dr. Ruth’s bedroom tips for long-term couples.
womans finger tied with string
Learn how we remember, and why we forget.
man reviewing building plans
Do you know how to stay healthy as you age?
fast healthy snack ideas
how healthy is your mouth
dog on couch
doctor holding syringe
champagne toast
Two women wearing white leotards back to back
Man feeding woman
two senior women laughing