Your mother has cancer: In Praise of the NHS
“Your mother has cancer” … Ironically four little words that almost killed me. It was the deluge of tears that made for poor visibility as I sprinted out of the newsroom and across Gray’s Inn Road while furiously Googling: ‘Mum has breast cancer what do I do?’ which resulted in a face-first near miss with the 341 bus.
Why don’t they ever say your mother has a touch of the dreaded disease about her or she’s come down with a bad bout of the invasive ductal variety? It’s the word cancer I don’t like as it reeks of a Stephen King book review: “An eponymous being, which exploits the fears and phobias of its victims in order to disguise itself while hunting its prey.”
And so our journey began, not least with the bus driver who shook his head in disbelief as I sheepishly cambered aboard, but a longer more ambiguous voyage into the unknown. One that involved really long needles, unpronounceable medical terms, spasms of anxiety, overwhelming pride and a NHS nurse called Paula.
My Mum is an old school, tough as old boots, no-nonsense kinda gal. She is also unflinchingly generous, fiercely loyal, extremely loving, extraordinarily good company and my very best friend. Up against the backdrop of a cancer diagnosis, I’m throwing inspirational, courageous and gutsy into that heady mix too.
Her breast cancer was a picked up in February this year after a routine mammogram at Kingston Hospital in Surrey. No lump, no discomfort, no visible signs. Simply two scans taken three years apart that didn’t quite match up. And that is when the NHS machine started up. The UK’s biggest employer, which comes in for a kicking all too regularly but ultimately, saved her life.
You don’t often read about Betty, the kindly hospital volunteer who greets the patients and visitors with a supportive smile making that long wait for the next batch of test results all the more endurable.
Or the dashing Mr Davies who took as long as it took to explain the information overload while our heads spun with the immensely complicated surgery and reconstruction options and never once looked at his watch.
Or Doctor Cummins who smiled as he uncrossed my fingers as I sat next to Mum before telling us that her lymph nodes were all clear.
Or the Oncology Specialist who hugged Mum and wiped away her tears after stating she wouldn’t need chemo or radiotheraphy.
But above all there was Paula. Lovely cancer nurse Paula. In my view she has the worst job in the world, but is the very best person for it. She’s at your side from the outset, throughout the shock, the tears and the endless questioning phase. She doesn’t just weigh you down with literature, she talks you through it and then she listens.
Next comes the operation and she’s at your bedside, albeit vaguely visible through the smog of anesthetic. And still she’s by your side again during those frequently tense moments that determine your recovery, your treatment and ultimately, your future. But she wasn’t just there for my Mum. She was right there with my Dad and me too. And after every consultation, she moved onto the next breast cancer patient and their family and to the family after that. Day after day … sensitive, supportive and always smiling.
A statue of lovely cancer nurse Paula should be erected outside the Sir William Rous Unit with the words: “Every hospital needs a Paula.” And I’m sure they do.
About 48,000 women get breast cancer in the UK each year. The chance of a woman having invasive breast cancer during her life is about 1 in 8. The chance of dying from breast cancer is about 1 in 36. The statistics are terrifying. But thousands of people do beat cancer every year and my Mum was one of the lucky ones.
Early detection can make a real difference. And if it weren’t for the NHS alerting her to the mismatched mammograms and the subsequent medical care, I would be writing her obituary now. Instead, to quote my Mum: “No one can beat cancer on their own. I didn’t choose this journey, but that is why I will always be eternally grateful to my hugely supportive family, my wonderful mates from around the world, the life-saving NHS and to my dear friend Paula.”
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