It’s been a couple of weeks since I blogged m1caalb. Mainly because I’ve been absolutely wrung-out from working in my new job, which is a much longer commute and longer hours.
I had applied for GP training (just the interview now) and that wouldn’t start until August, so I needed to find some work to do to pay the bills until then. Out of desperation I took the first opportunity that came my way….
Back in October, I met a friend of a friend who is a nurse on the oncology ward at my local hospital, and I distinctly remember saying to her “I would never work on that ward, much too tough”. Well, I should really watch what I say, since that was where I found myself on Monday morning a few weeks ago.
In other medical jobs, I’d sometimes avoided patients with cancer. Perhaps it seems obvious, but why? I’m a doctor after all- used to difficult situations and horrible illnesses.
I guess it’s true that the fear of a situation is often worse than the thing itself. I wanted to write down a few reflections from these last few weeks; before they perhaps fade with the normality of passing time.
- The oncology ward is no different to any other ward I’ve worked on
Perhaps I thought that there would be some sort of different air, that the fear of death would be permeating everyone that stepped over the threshold. Of course, that’s not the case…
2. People are living with cancer and not just dying of it
Life does go on when you’re diagnosed with cancer. Even with a ‘terminal’ diagnosis, your life does not end there and then. It goes on. We are all dying click this link here now. Some perhaps sooner than others, yes, but there are many people I’ve met over recent weeks who carry on without potentially counting down the days until their death.
3. There is a phenomenal amount of support
Some of this saddens me, mainly because I’ve come from mental health, which is so chronically under resourced – so it makes the lack of parity more obvious. There is not a single medical speciality that can have exclusive ownership for managing cancer. Surgeons, oncologists, GPs, nurse specialists, pharmacists all feature as different stops on the journey for patients. It has impressed me how quickly each player gets involved and plays their part with true compassion.
4. Chemotherapy isn’t always that awful
The majority of chemotherapy is given as an outpatient, but we have a number of patients on the ward (particularly those with leukaemia) receiving chemotherapy. A lot of modern chemotherapies are surprisingly well tolerated, and when people do experience side effects, they’re usually managed with other medications.
5. It’s not about ‘fighting’
Now this has actually been a bug-bear of mine for a while now. The late Dr Kate Granger (who died of cancer last year) often wrote about how she disliked the battleground rhetoric that is the mainstay of advertising from cancer charities these days. The problem is that it implies that people ‘give up’ if cancer ‘defeats’ them. Not so. Clearly, I don’t disagree that positivity and determination can go a long way, especially when the alternative is despair. But cancer is a complex biological process, and so many factors are involved in whether someone can be treated to remission.
6. People cope with cancer, and with the prospect of death
It’s the ultimate fear. Death. We use so many euphemisms to try and disguise the fact that we’re all damned scared. Maybe not even for ourselves, but perhaps for others. Perhaps this comes back to what I wrote above the fear of a situation often being worse than the situation itself. Of course there are many natural and difficult emotions that I have recently been a witness to, particularly with an initial unexpected diagnosis. Maybe it’s survival instinct, I don’t know. But people cope.
The human spirit is so beautiful and resiliant. Life is hard. The thought of death hurts. Hospitals are not fun places to be. I suppose, ultimately, I feel proud for fighting through some fear myself these last few weeks. But I also feel privileged to be given the opportunity to accompany fellow human beings on this more difficult part of their journey.