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April 18, 2011
Mrs. Smith (not her real name) fidgeted in her chair in my examination room as I scanned the radiology report she had given me. She had visited the emergency room the previous evening with severe abdominal pain that had eventually been diagnosed as gastritis, or swelling of the stomach lining due to a virus. During her evaluation, the ER physician had ordered a CT scan of her abdomen and pelvis. Although Mrs. Smith's liver and intestines appeared normal, the radiologist had noted a tiny mass on one of her kidneys.
The report stated that the mass was consistent with a harmless cyst, but concluded with a statement that was all too familiar to me: "Cannot rule out malignancy. Clinical correlation required." Translation: it was almost certainly nothing serious, but there was a very small chance that it might be cancer, and now it was my job to make sure it wasn't. But further investigation of this incidental finding, which had no relationship to Mrs. Smith's original symptoms, would involve a painful biopsy, and if the biopsy was inconclusive, surgery to remove her kidney. In similar situations with other patients, I had suggested the alternative of regular monitoring with additional scans to make sure that the mass wasn't growing; however, this option requires that a patient live each day with the anxiety of not knowing if she has cancer.