This post was written by London-based GP, broadcaster, author, journalist and mother of three kids – Dr Philippa Kaye.
One in two of us will receive a diagnosis of cancer at some point in our lives, and it is one of the most feared illnesses we can think of. In our minds cancer equals death, or at least the start of a process which will end in death but actually and thankfully that isn’t correct! The majority of people who are diagnosed with cancer will recover fully and even if full recovery and cure is not possible more and more of us are living with cancer instead of dying from it. We need to change the story, as this fear of the diagnosis actually stops some people going to their GPs when they have symptoms, as
they are scared of what the answer may be, but the earlier that you are diagnosed with cancer, in general the easier it is to treat and the better your prognosis will be.
I was just 39 years old when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and even as a doctor it came as a shock, it simply hadn’t occurred to me that cancer could have been causing my symptoms. I had pelvic pain but had had three Caesarean sections and assumed it was down to scar tissue from the surgeries, I did not have the classical symptoms of bowel cancer which are blood in the poo or change in bowel habit – when your stools change either to being looser and more frequent or to being more constipated. Abdominal or pelvic pain can be due to bowel cancer but I was young and had another reason to have pain, so the diagnosis was a bolt out of the blue.
Having cancer throws your world into chaos immediately and it wants to take over your entire life. Cancer finds its way into all roles you play, and for me those include dr, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend and more, it affects them all, from your ability to work to your relationships. Suddenly all anyone wants to talk about is the cancer, your treatment and how you are. If you know someone with cancer right now, remember that they are still the person they were before their diagnosis, funny, loyal, honest, clever, whatever those qualities may be, and talk to them like they are your friend, not solely a cancer patient!
While cancer and its treatments may be a physical burden there is no denying that it takes a toll on your mental health. No matter how stoic you are, there are times when it is tough, when you are sad, when you hurt, when you are angry, when it just plain sucks and all of those emotions, or whatever emotions you are feeling are completely normal and valid. As a friend or family member, your role here is to listen and not try to fix, because the truth is, you can’t fix it. Much as you might want to, sometimes there is no fixing a situation, to borrow from Robert Frost’s quote ‘the only way out is through’ and in order to support your loved one you can only listen. We know you want us to be positive, to be strong, you tell us that we’ve ‘got this’ and send emojis representing strength. But you can be strong and vulnerable, you can be brave and frightened, you can know that you are going to keep going but feel fed up and frustrated all at the same time and we, as patients and your friends, need to be heard when we voice our emotions.
People often said to me that I was strong, but the truth is that I felt that I had no choice but to continue, even if that was trudging along or baby steps, I felt there was no other option. Looking back I see that I was wrong and have often discussed this with patients, of course there are other options, , we all make choices every day, we go to work when we want to stay in bed, we care for our kids, for ourselves, even when we are fed up! I think perhaps for me it was that I had already made my choice, to have treatment and to keep going, and once that was made, so deep down in my very core, it sometimes felt that there was no other choice.
True courage is not running blindly into a risky situation with no thought for your own safety, true courage is knowing the risks and doing it anyway. For everyone out there, going through cancer, or other illness, or whatever stress or trial in your life, you might feel afraid and weak, but you are brave, because, whether or not you feel you have a choice, you keep trudging on. You may not feel it, but that is how I know you are strong.
Doctors Get Cancer Too by Dr Philippa Kaye is her memoir of being a dr and patient with cancer and is available now.