A blog on my experience speaking at the 3rd Breast Cancer forum for Breast Cancer in the young, the pregnant and those with a family history.

Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision.

-Andrew Carnegie

It wasn’t the most ideal time for my consultant to call me to ask a huge favour! With my five year old blowing a new whistle and, in-between breaths, explaining how to use a new compass while having no direction at all herself and squirming in her car seat, due to soaking wet trousers after dancing in a rain storm, I couldn’t have been more caught off guard!

Since it wasn’t Mum or Best Friend and he was either calling because there was something amiss on my last blood test (gosh am I due another one?!) or he needed someone to buddy a new patient, I shot a death stare to the squirming five year old in the back seat and put my finger sharply to the lips, letting my curiosity get the better of me.

Dr Brown Bear (our family nickname for my consultant, based on the character from the legend that is Peppa Pig!) has been my consultant for the last ten years but if you count my family history, you could probably add another ten! If anyone had my total and utter medical trust, it was him and as a patient, I had always felt very lucky to have him head up my own CT (cancer team)

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He had been asked to speak at a forum in London the following Friday, on the topic of breast cancer in the young, pregnant or those with a family history and since I ticked all three boxes (lucky me!) he was calling to ask if I would be able to co present with him! Put on the spot, I usually willingly volunteer for anything (I am working on this!) but as I uttered the word Yes, my tummy flipped more than a cement mixer and I began to seriously wonder how far out of my comfort zone one could actually push themselves!

Since the subject matter of the conference at The Royal Society of Medicine was so relevant to the last ten years of my life, Dr BB thought it would be a novel and effective idea to include a patient as a walking talking case study and apparently I was the patient who had sprung to mind! Doh!

He wanted to put together a presentation that would be a shift from the norm and help the audience see things from the patients point of view. I loved this, and it was something I felt passionately about and had always wanted to do. This was an opportunity to give younger patients a voice and demonstrate how we might interpret all things clinical whilst ‘falling down the rabbit hole’.

We met to go through the presentation and there, stripped back to twenty five slides, were the last ten years of my life, broken down into roughly thirteen six monthly appointments. It was bizarre.
All that had happened to little old me?

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As we talked through each slide, I literally couldn’t believe all the things that had happened. I had forgotten (or blanked from my mind!) so many details. As we talked, Dr BB would make suggestions of areas to consider discussing and questions he may ask me at certain points. Once again I felt pleased that I had kept all my diaries to remind me of the emotions, feelings and observations that I could draw on again to give an accurate picture of a patients experience.

Before I left, we looked at the schedule for the day and as I glanced down the list of names and titles (and my stomach flipped again!) I saw a familiar name as the key note speaker. Jo Taylor was due to talk at the end of the day and I was thrilled to see her name! I had been in contact with Jo for a couple of years, following her amazing work on Twitter for her brilliant ABC Diagnosis. Jo’s story was incredible and she had written a guest blog for me a few months ago. I was thrilled that there would be another ‘patient’ there and someone who I had been hoping to meet.

On arriving home that evening, I retrieved my diaries to take a few notes and prepare. I found myself face to face with the girl who had actually lived through all that uncertainty and fear, who had run head first down the rabbit hole three times and survived each fall with as much courage as she could muster. I read the first few pages word for word and felt a huge wave of emotion as I read how those first few days had affected me.

As I read, I relived a little, laughed a little and cried a little. I wanted to write my twenty six year old self a letter and tell her all this would mean something one day! Instead, I put her in my pocket and continued to scroll through the slides, hoping that she would help prompt me on the day.

As I arrived at the Royal Society of Medicine on Friday, I felt quite excited! It was as if this was something I had been preparing for a lot longer than a week! Dr BB met me at reception and showed me into the auditorium. It wasn’t as big as I had feared and there were two seats on the stage ready for us to sit.

No sooner had I grabbed a cup of tea (to steady the nerves!) we were being asked to take our seats. Dr BB and I sat at the front while Dr Kathleen Thompson introduced the days schedule. Then it was our turn.

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Sitting on the stage with the man who had technically saved my life three times, was a total honour.
Talking through those huge events of one persons life, in black and white bullet points on a sterile screen, was my chance to splash some colour and meaning onto the page, so that the audience could appreciate the real personal impact of this disease. This was raw, this was real. I had been worrying that I would be tongue tied, that I wouldn’t know what to say, but as I sat there and listened to Dr BB and took my queue from him, I realised that all I had to tell them, was the truth. It was my reality, my experience that they wanted to hear. I hadn’t needed to memorise anything, remember any facts. This was my story, plain and simple and I was the professional now. It was totally empowering.

Being asked about the benefits of counselling, the importance of the holistic care available to me, what access there was to nutritional advice and how effective I thought certain treatments had been was wonderful. Add to this what the most important issues were to me at each point of diagnosis, as well as discussing the effects on my family and our history, it was a chance to lay out a reality that so many people are experiencing outside of the clinical environment. This was what happened under the surface and while the doctors tick boxes and follow guidelines, we, as the patients, are living with blurred or no guidelines at all and boxes we often can’t tick.

Having the opportunity to talk about my reasons for setting up Samspaces was wonderful and having the chance to rally more awareness for the issues we, as younger patients, face post treatment, was something that meant a great deal.

Next up was a fantastic plastic surgeon, Mr Ash Mosahebi, who discussed reconstruction and all the different areas on the body a flap could be taken from and what the results could be like. Following Mr Mosahebi, oncologist Dr Anna Kirby from The Royal Marsden discussed the Breath Hold technique and how it is helping the effectiveness of radiotherapy by getting the heart out of the way of the treatment. As the day went on, the presentations continued to be just as fascinating. Dr Alison Jones talked extensively about the issues of pregnancy during and after cancer and her colleague Dr Madhurima Rajkhowa talked us through the possible fertility options available should younger patients be in this situation. I felt so privileged to have been able to listen to these talented and highly respected doctors as they talked about their research and professions.

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Watching Jo give her key note speech was very special. This lady, who only six weeks ago had extensive surgery to her sternum and who is still under going chemotherapy for a secondary cancer, blew me away. Her bravery, courage and unwavering battle to lobby the government and medical profession for more funding into secondary breast cancer prevention and research, is astounding. It was a hugely powerful speech and she totally rocked it!

From the feedback and conversations I had throughout the day, I learnt quickly that hearing a patients first hand experience meant a great deal to those attending this forum. The risk of including a patient had paid off and starting the day with our presentation and ending with Jo’s had highlighted to those listening, the importance of the patients wellbeing and the value of their indivudual experiences. It was so encouraging to hear how the structure of a younger patients clinical team needs to be reviewed including on tap holistic support, counsellors, orthopaedic doctors, a gynaecologist, rhematologist and nutritionists among others. I was delighted that our presentation had been received so well and left on a high, hoping that perhaps I had made just a tiny contribution in helping to understand how to better support the younger patient and how they are affected by the far reaching effects a cancer diagnosis can have. Maybe, somewhere down the line there will be new boxes to tick and more holistic guidelines to follow, during and after treatment, for the patient and the doctor. After all, if there is one thing I have learnt over the last ten years, it is a team effort.

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Thank you to Pink Ribbon, RSM Professionals and Breast Cancer Care