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Doctor’s Orders

Ken Begley

HERE’S ONE OF THE most important lessons I’ve learned in retirement: Bad health will limit what you can do—or feel like doing—no matter how much money you have. Good health is the biggest determinant of how rich and fulfilling your retirement years will be.

You and you alone are responsible for your health care. It’s not your spouse, your children, your friends or your doctors. It’s you. Nobody should have to beg you to see a doctor.

Also, doctors are not all-seeing mystics. They need your help to catch problems early, when they’re easier to treat. Just like retirement finances, the sooner you work on the problem, the more likely you’ll have success fixing it.

I have two brothers who taught me these lessons. For their entire working lives, they co-owned a furniture store. Both reached their 60s happily married, with mature and well-adjusted adult children, and they were quite wealthy. They should have had a long, wonderful retirement.

But it didn’t happen that way.

One died at age 64 and the other at 68. Both had horrible deaths as a result of cancer, though neither smoked or abused alcohol. Our family didn’t have a history of cancer. Our father lived to 92 and our mother is currently 95. It’s my opinion that both deaths could have been prevented if they’d been proactive about their health care. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could walk and talk with them. It’s too late.

But maybe not for me. I’ve learned from their tragic errors.

The sad fact is, my brothers just waited too long to act on medical issues, and then handed the doctors unsolvable problems. They had the money. They had the time. But they just chose to ignore the problems, hoping they’d get better on their own. That didn’t happen.

One brother was literally begged to go to the doctor by his family when obvious signs of melanoma skin cancer arose. He just “didn’t have time.” He belatedly got treatment, thought they had it, only for it to pop up later throughout his body.

The other brother had signs of trouble for more than a year. He made a trip to the doctor, who mistook his problem. My brother never followed up with the doctor when he failed to heal. He kept hoping it would just get better on its own. It didn’t.

I served on active duty or in the reserves for the military from age 17 to 60. But you know what? After my first physical exam at 17, the medical tests that the Army and Navy conducted were very basic. You’d be surprised at how many people with ill-health serve in the military today. I once went on a weekend drill in the reserves where a major fell over sideways from a massive heart attack during some light exercise. He died.

I’d always done a lot of exercise. But after retirement—and after seeing what happened with my brothers—I put that same rigor into my health care. My attitude changed.

I get an annual physical, along with eye and dental checkups. I eat healthily and exercise daily. I get my prostate checked each year and get a colonoscopy every five years. I inform the doctors of any oddball things that my body is doing. I wear protective clothing when out in the sun, as well as sunscreen. I get all my appropriate vaccinations, like I did in the military, and that’s prevented me from getting some bad diseases. I didn’t think there was much else I could do.

But I forgot one area: a total body skin exam by a dermatologist. My friends were talking about it and I knew it would be a good idea, considering my brother’s history and the fact that I had noticed a black spot—a little smaller than a dime—on the arch of my foot. It wasn’t getting bigger and wasn’t causing pain. I pointed out the spot to my family doctor and it puzzled her. But she didn’t think it was anything to worry about. She just told me to watch it and go to a dermatologist if I felt the need.

So, I went to a dermatologist for a total body skin exam and pointed out the spot. A biopsy was done. I got a call a week later from the doctor’s office and was told that I had abnormal cells. This wasn’t melanoma, but the doctor was concerned. She said it could rapidly morph into melanoma and wanted to get it out of my body as soon as possible.

I was sent to a podiatrist the next day, who removed the spot. The doctor kept saying over and over again how lucky I was to have caught this problem early. He said it was an unusual place for such a problem and, if it had grown much larger, he didn’t know how he would have handled it. I had to do outpatient surgery to get it all out. Happily, the biopsy came up negative.

My son’s mother-in-law decided to get a total body skin scan because of me. The doctor found and removed two spots of skin cancer from her body. It stunned her.

I feel blessed. I want you to be blessed. Get those checkups for yourself and for your family. It might save a life. It sure can’t hurt.

Ken Begley has worked for the IRS and as an accountant, a college director of student financial aid and a newspaper columnist, and he also spent 42 years on active and reserve service with the U.S. Navy and Army. Now retired, Ken likes to spend his time with his family, especially his grandchildren, and as a volunteer with Kentucky’s Marion County Veterans Honor Guard performing last rites at military funerals, including more than 350 during the past three years. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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