Deborah Coddington
Deborah Coddington

Guest Editorial: Another Personal Statement

Last month on this page Lindsay Perigo stated his reasons for not moving to America, one of which was that a close friend had been told she had cancer. I am that friend. I tell you this not to alarm you, to elicit sympathy, or to bore you. I tell you because the episode has been, for me, a salutary lesson (just in case I needed one) in why the government should not be allowed anywhere near a syringe, a dressing, a scalpel, an oxygen mask, a tissue sample — anything to do with health. We all know health is not the legitimate role of government but this exercise, for me, concretised the issue.

In March 1998 a friend noticed a black mole on my arm. I dismissed her concern airily, saying my skin was too brown, my hair too dark, and anyway, I laughed too much to get cancer. But when I showed my GP the mole, he removed it immediately and sent it off for analysis. It was malignant, but only a "level two", and not considered dangerous. So my GP removed the flesh surrounding the mole, and pathology confirmed the melanoma had not spread from the site. I went on my merry way, returning every three months for a mole and lymph gland check.

One year later I went for my last check-up and pointed out that a small mole had grown across the scar. To be safe, my GP did a punch biopsy (under local anaesthetic a thick needle extracts some tissue) and sent it away. A week later he rang to say malignant melanoma had once more shown up, something which should not have happened. So I went to a plastic surgeon this time, to have another chunk removed from my arm, which was sent away and came back as negative for melanoma.

Good news, but I wanted to be sure. I laid the pathology results out in front of my GP and said, "What's wrong with this picture?" Clearly we needed someone to look at all four results together, rather than each individual result, so he organised a pathology conference and I went away and got on with my life. Five weeks later when I hadn't heard back I assumed no news was good news.

I assumed wrong. Three top Auckland pathologists realised that the punch biopsy actually went into flesh which before the first excision, done 12 months earlier, was about 1.5cm away from the mole. In other words the melanoma had already left the site, probably before I even had the mole checked out. When melanoma gets into the system it's not funny. Melanoma cells cleverly disguise themselves as ordinary cells, so our immune system doesn't recognise them as anything untoward, and won't attack them. Thus they can rampage through a body with ease, before they find a nice place to land and cause havoc — like the lungs, stomach, bowel or kidneys.

So off I went to an oncologist and told him there was absolutely nothing wrong with me because I felt so fit; any fitter, in fact, and I'd be dangerous. He decided I should have a sentinel node biopsy — the latest in nuclear medicine, which has been used in this country for the past 2-5 years in breast cancer and melanoma. So much for a nuclear-free New Zealand and thank heavens for that. Medical science has found that if the cancer has gone into the lymphatic system and reached the lymph glands, then the first to be affected will be the sentinel node (sentinel in the node closest to the original melanoma). Before this technique was used, patients waited until they felt lumps in the armpit then the entire area was operated on, about 30 lymph nodes removed, and tested in a long slow process. Now if the sentinel node is removed and found to be clear of malignancy, then there is only a 2% chance the cancer has gone into the lymph nodes.

I was told that this was urgent, and I would wait no longer than a week to have it done at Auckland Public Hospital. I waited, and waited, then phoned Auckland Public. Oh yes, it's urgent, I was told, but you might wait two months. I got a rough estimate of what it would cost and decided to bite the bullet and go private. Mention those magic words and everything swings into action. At about 11am on a Thursday I told the surgeon I'd go private. I was in his rooms at 4.15 that afternoon, and booked into radiology Monday morning, to proceed directly to a private hospital Monday afternoon. I would have a general anaesthetic and go home that evening. No fuss and only one page of form filling.

Monday, I have to say, was not a pleasant day. Nonetheless it was interesting. First, a radiologist injects radioisotopes under the skin at the site of the melanoma — in my case, a six-week old scar — ouch! Then under a camera you see the radioactive material coursing through your lymphatic system and lighting up the sentinel node. The radiologist then marks on your skin where the surgeon should cut, and sends you off to hospital. There the surgeon injects blue die under the skin (and if I thought the other injection hurt, then I hadn't felt pain) which will clearly identify, to an area of about 10mm square, how much he should remove.

The result of this biopsy, which I received two days later, was negative. My life had been handed back to me. If I'd gone public, I'd still be waiting. I still have melanoma (there is no cure for it) but it's not doing anything nasty to me. There is a chance it will bypass the lymph nodes and go directly into the bloodstream, but there's nothing I, nor anyone else, can do about that. I'll know if I start feeling drastically ill. For now, it's a matter of close surveillance on the surgeon's part, and living life to the full on my part.

And the moral of this story? Don't bother paying your taxes because they sure as hell aren't going to help you when you're faced with a life-threatening disease and need help urgently. All up, this has cost me $4968 — not a huge amount when you consider what you spend on your house or car — but the principle is more important. I can afford it and if I couldn't I have family and friends who would lend me the money. What about those people who diligently paid their taxes all their lives because governments told them it was a small price to pay for guaranteed, affordable healthcare? They pay with their lives.

Vote Libertarianz. Vote life.

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