Although cancer is always on your radar as a doctor, it wasn’t on my personal one.
So when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2019, it shocked me to the core.
The risk of cancer in someone my age (39 at the time of diagnosis) is 1 in 10,000 and, as those odds are so tiny, it didn’t occur to me that I could have it.
I first noticed something was off in 2015, a year or so after the birth of my youngest daughter. I had some very occasional pelvic pain and assumed it was related to scar tissue from multiple caesarean sections.
At first, it was mild and occasional. But in the six months before my diagnosis, the pain worsened and I decided to seek medical advice.
Doctors don’t treat themselves so I made an appointment with my GP and was referred to see a gynaecologist, and then a bowel surgeon. This all probably took a few months, before the day of the endoscopy when the cancer was discovered.
The diagnosis left me feeling numb. Like many young adults, I felt I was healthy. And, I suppose, as a doctor I knew I didn’t have blood in my stool or a change in bowel habits, and I had given myself an explanation for the pain.
My emotional wall went up to protect myself and there was extremely little time to catch up with it all. I went from my diagnosis to scans, more tests and then surgery, within a week – all while continuing to work to try and hold onto some normality.
Going from doctor to patient can feel like a leap. I have the knowledge of a GP and an understanding of medical language, but I am not a specialist colorectal surgeon so I still had plenty of questions.
To me, knowledge is power and it helps you feel in control. Giving up that control has been extremely difficult for me, especially when it comes to health.
I needed to know exactly what was happening all the time, but I also needed to trust my team. Maybe I was more prepared; on the other hand, perhaps I knew too much about what to be afraid of.
While awaiting my surgery, I went through the motions. I did not – or, probably, could not – allow myself to truly feel what was going on, because I was worried that if I did stop and process everything, it might mean I wouldn’t be able to get going again.
I went into survival mode, and my family came along with me.
Maybe I was more prepared; on the other hand, perhaps I knew too much about what to be afraid of
I also remained at work throughout and, although my colleagues knew about my diagnosis, I didn’t talk about it to my patients. Cancer invades every facet of your life and I was determined to keep my job intact – it is part of who I am, and I was not prepared to give it up.
My normal working day didn’t change, although I did have to take more time off to have treatment. At times, this was physically draining, especially towards the end of chemotherapy.
But immersing myself in the world of my patients allowed me to step out of my own head and focus on someone else, while my experience as a patient myself gave me real empathy for and insight into their perspective.
It was a slight reprieve from my own world, where all anybody talked to me about was my diagnosis.
It’s important for people to remember that if you have friends or family with cancer, they are still the person they were before their diagnosis – talk to them about everything else in life, and not just their illness. This is something I had to remind people.
There are lots of feelings involved when you have cancer – all of the big ones and often all at once, which can be overwhelming and confusing. I also found that my emotions could be really conflicting – I could be brave and frightened, angry and sad, and not one feeling cancels out another. There is no right or wrong way to feel or cope, and I took solace in that during my treatment.
I was told I was cancer-free after undergoing a huge surgical procedure in September 2020 and I’m extremely thankful every day.
Now I am learning what it is to be a cancer survivor and how to live with the anxiety that it may yet come back (therapy helps!), as well as how to be a better doctor for my patients as a result of my own experiences.
I’ve always sympathised with them in many situations but now, when they realise I’ve sat in their chair, received a life-changing diagnosis, undergone major surgery and experienced chemotherapy, they know that I truly understand. I hope that also means they feel less alone.
It took a long time for me to think about opening up this part of my life and it was only in the last year, as I became more accepting of my situation, that I have been able to do so.
It works both ways – I may well be more empathetic towards patients, but perhaps they are also better able to see me as a human, as well as a medic.
While our aim as doctors is always to try and fix things, to do something and to make it better, we can’t do this all the time. But what we can make sure we do is sit with our patients in it – whatever ‘it’ maybe.
It’s important that we listen and be with them in their suffering and journeys. Because, often, having someone with you through these difficult times is simply enough.
Dr Philippa Kaye is a GP, media doctor and author. Her newest book Doctors Get Cancer Too: A Doctor’s Diary of Life and Recovery From Cancer is published by Summersdale Publishers, priced £8.99. Available 11 February.
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