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by Deborah Shaffer

In July, 1997, my younger sister Dorothy called me and said "I've had this bump on my leg since Xmas. I think I got it wrestling with my son, but the doctor wants me to go in for a biopsy." At 4:00 the next day she called and said, "It's cancer."

To me, it was like hearing a death sentence. I started sobbing. She had two young boys who needed her, a husband and patients who count on her as a psychotherapist. My reaction was an instantaneous grief. I didn't want to lose my sister.

Her doctor in Ithaca NY sent her to Sloan Kettering in New York City where they diagnosed her as having stage III melanoma. Caught early, melanoma is 95% curable, but my sister's odds of survival were down to 30%.

Sloan Kettering asked if she'd ever had any moles removed. She remembered only one, seven years ago, that tested "benign." We retrieved the sample from Smith Kline Beecham where the original tissue was analyzed. Three pathologists have examined it since and said that there was clearly melanoma in 1990.

My sister soon found out that although the lab's error greatly increased the odds that she'd die young, it was not legally responsible. All but 16 states have "discovery clauses" allowing you to sue for negligence or malpractice up to a year after consequences become apparent. In New York, however, the statute of limitations for medical malpractice runs out 2.5 years after the event — no matter how late your symptoms appear.

Apart from the financial pressures her family now faces because of her illness, my sister became concerned about the consequences of this law. For example, HMO's will often let a general pathologist read a skin sample that only a pricier dermatopathologst is trained to analyze accurately. Convinced that labs won't improve their accuracy until the price of negligence rises, she started working to change state law.

While fighting her disease, raising her two wildly active boys and maintaining nearly half her caseload, my sister managed to get her story before the legislature and on TV. One of two bills designed to extend medical accountability was to be named "Dorothy's Bill," after her. I feel great respect for the dignity and courage that my baby sister is showing in the face of this deadly disease. While she can't yet declare victory over either cancer or anti-regulators in Albany, she has so far beat her death sentence the only way any of us can — by staying very much alive.

Related Links:
(1) OncoLink University of Penn Cancer Center

(2) Taking Action Through Education and Research!

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WHO IS: Deborah Shaffer, professor of film at NYU and SUNY-Purchase. Her documentaries include Dance of Hope and the Academy Award winning, Witness to War.

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