University professor, 37, died of lung cancer after doctors said symptoms were ‘purely psychological’
A respected university professor died of lung cancer aged 37 after doctors repeatedly dismissed her illness as “purely psychological”, it emerged today.
Cambridge-educated Lisa Smirl, 37, saw three different doctors with a range of symptoms over a year-long period but they were dismissed as anxiety and depression.
By the time cancer was finally diagnosed it had spread throughout her body and was terminal.
Dr Smirl, who was married to a medical doctor and lived in Leeds and Brighton, kept a heartbreaking online blog about her treatment.
Shortly after her diagnosis, she wrote: “How is it possible that a 36-year-old, health [obsessed] conscious, occasionally social smoking, middle class, fiancée of a doctor can develop metastatic lung cancer unnoticed. How?!?”
“What the consultant told us was that not only was it the c-word, but that it was everywhere.
“My brain, my bones, my liver. While in some ways this was a terrible surprise, in another it was a huge relief.
“For the last year I’d been battling a range of bizarre and seemingly disparate symptoms that had forced me in September 2011 to go on sick leave from my job as a lecturer (assistant professor).
“The diagnosis at the time was anxiety and/or depression. And while I was both anxious and depressed, this was due to the increasingly disabling symptoms that my doctor kept insisting were purely psychological.
“So I was actually grateful for a medical diagnosis that confirmed there were objective, physical reasons behind my illness.”
Dr Smirl, who is originally from Canada, wrote how she first experienced shortness of breath and wheezing in late 2010, which was wrongly diagnosed as asthma.
In spring 2011, she was referred to a physiotherapist for shoulder and arm pain and started experiencing ‘visual migraines’ – losing her vision for half an hour – in June.
By September 2011, Lisa was so sick she was forced to leave work, having been diagnosed with depression and anxiety and put on anti-depressants.
But despite a dramatic weight loss, Lisa claimed three different family doctors refused to consider her symptoms in connection with each other.
She wrote: “Still, despite my pleas, and a dramatic weight loss, none of my doctors (and I saw three different family practitioners) would consider my symptoms in conjunction with one another – insisting that they were all common, unrelated problems (migraines, asthma, depression, back pain).”
In November 2011, Lisa misread her asthma prescription and took ten times the recommended amount – but the drug made no difference to a violent cough.
Her doctor finally sent her for a routine X-ray and within hours was given the devastating news that she had cancer.
On her blog, called Stage V – as stage IV of cancer is considered terminal – she describes her journey from “a woman diagnosed with ‘anxiety’ to one with metastatic cancer”.
Dr Smirl wrote: “I can’t prove it, and this is just my opinion, but I have no doubt in my own mind that my misdiagnosis was in large part due to the fact that I was a middle aged female and that my male doctors were preconceived towards a psychological rather than a physiological diagnosis.
“It is so easy to say that someone’s symptoms are ‘anxiety’ related if they are a little bit complicated, unclear or unusual. Don’t repeat my mistakes.
“You know when something is wrong. Find another doctor that you connect with and who takes your concerns seriously. Get referrals. Get tested. Refuse to be dismissed.”
Dr Smirl worked in the global studies department at the University of Sussex between 2009 and 2012, but took early retirement.
Despite battling the disease, she maintained an honorary lectureship in the department until her death on February 21.
She also completed a Great North Run to raise funds for the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation in November 2012.
Professor Richard Black, head of the school of global studies at the University of Sussex, led tributes.
He said: “Lisa was a fantastic colleague and friend, a great teacher and researcher and truly inspirational in the way she dealt with her illness.”
Professor Justin Rosenberg, head of international relations, added: “Lisa was an outstanding colleague who shared her intellectual and personal vivacity with academics and students alike.”
West Sussex PCT and the Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals Trust were unable to confirm that they were involved with Lisa’s treatment.