Coming out: When professional meets personal.

In June last year I celebrated thirty years as a qualified therapeutic radiographer, fourteen as a clinical practitioner in the NHS and sixteen as an educator and researcher. In these thirty years all I have wanted to do is to make a difference, to make things better. By better I mean to make the experience of having radiotherapy following a diagnosis of cancer a little more bearable, to improve radiotherapy techniques and improve treatment accuracy.

As a clinical radiographer I tried to do this by challenging the status quo and conducting research and service developments. My PhD investigated the radiotherapeutic approach used for treating women following a diagnosis of breast cancer and my current academic research and teaching has been in this field also. In my breast cancer research (The S4A study) the focus has been about enhancing accuracy and enhancing the patient experience.

I’m a huge advocate of women understanding how to reduce their risk of developing breast cancer. I’ve been acutely aware of the risk factors since studying as a student back in the 1980s and I am currently a trustee for a charity called The Bust Trust who aim to support breast health and wellbeing.

So it was a big shock when in March of this year I was myself diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. I have worked hard over the years to reduce my own risk of breast cancer,  I had my first child before I was thirty and breast fed both my children (considered protective factors for breast cancer), there is no family history of the disease, I’ve never been over weight and my alcohol intake is minimal; ok maybe my instagram posts of martinis in different locations presents a slightly different image-is it to late to delete the evidence? So I considered myself low risk, how wrong I was.

I have tried to keep my diagnosis private for the benefit of my children and really because I just wanted to get on with treatment with minimal fuss. But I think it’s time to come out and declare I’m now an official member of that not so exclusive and not very popular guild, the cancer club.

So why is it time to go public

Well it’s certainly not about gaining sympathy, it’s about doing justice to the hundreds of women that get a diagnosis of breast cancer every day who are brave enough to share their stories so that professionals like me can learn to do things better, make cancer care better. It’s about adding my voice to the growing throng of people who have received a diagnosis of cancer, that this journey is not a fight or a battle to be won or lost, it is a deliberate process of undertaking treatment and self care based on the very best scientific evidence, guided by well informed clinicians, taking each step with deliberation, affecting my own informed choice of the path to take, maintaining control over the decisions that are made and hopefully doing all this with a modicum of dignity.

I have made the decision to continue to work as much as I can during my treatment. This is not because I am in any way attempting to be super-woman, or because breast cancer treatment is a doddle-trust me it is not. Continuing to work is not for everyone and managing treatment, clinic appointments, as well as all the crazy stuff going on in your head is not at all easy. But I have chosen to continue to work because I love what I do, and I am more than ever, passionate about making radiotherapy for breast cancer a kinder, more dignified and even better treatment than it currently is. Also because working is a distraction, it helps to stop thinking about yourself and focus on other people. Mostly though, I am continuing to work because it is integral to my entire being. I was a competitive gymnast as a youngster; a sport that instils an ethic of hard work and commitment. You were never allowed to miss training, ever! The only time you were allowed to miss training was if your leg fell off, even then you’d be expected to turn up for conditioning.

I remember as a gymnast falling off the asymmetric bars doing a new move, and lying on the floor staring at the gym ceiling, gasping for breath and in excruciating pain. In the distance I heard my gym coach, he was supporting a gymnast at the other end of the gym, he bellowed across to me “What are you doing on the floor? Get back up and do it again!” I did, and I felt better for it. So that’s all I know what to do, when you fall down, you don’t stay down, you carry on and you keep trying to do better.

Most of all it’s time to go public because I need to say thank you. Thank you to my family and friends for their unending support, and understanding. Thank you to those that have messaged me, laughed with me, had coffee/drinks with me, checked in with me religiously without need for a reply, shared my sadness with me, and shared their inner personal experiences of their journeys with me so I didn’t feel alone. Thank you to those who have offered help at any time of day, who have done school pick ups, gym pick ups, and sleep overs so I can get to clinic appointments and recover from surgery. To those that have offered to run with me to help me get back to fitness, to all of you -thank you. To those that when I said we were running the CRUK 10K Race for Life and would they support us (meaning would they come and cheer us on) they all signed up to join us and many of them don’t run or hate running- from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Because I will never be able to repay the kindness shown to me. But mostly because out of the trauma of a cancer diagnosis I have felt the most amazing love from my special family and from incredible friends-you know who you are. This image of my daughter with her gym buddies says it all, it says unbreakable friendship, a circle of strength and support and I feel that this is what all the special people in my life are doing right now for me, and it makes me happy.

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And though she be but little, she is fierce.

Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3 scene 2.

I love Shakespeare and this quote from a Midsummer Night’s Dream about Hermia is often seen as an insult because it is about how Hermia behaves when she becomes angry. However, it has become my inner mantra at clinic appointments where the unending trail of bad news each time you visit has potential to crush us (my husband and I). I have held back the tears each time the news worsens because my circle of strength makes me fierce.