At the Whittington I know I’m in the best place possible

BY CAROLINE COOK When I was diagnosed with cancer, the NHS swung into action immediately, and cared for me at every stage ---- How often these days do any of us hear a good story about the NHS? Not very often, it s true, but 18 months ago at the age of 42 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and my experience with the NHS throughout this journey could not have been more positive. I

How often these days do any of us hear a good story about the NHS? Not very often, it's true, but 18 months ago at the age of 42 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and my experience with the NHS throughout this journey could not have been more positive.

In the UK, women are not usually screened for breast cancer until they pass the age of 50 when they are closer to menopause and therefore considered more vulnerable to the disease, due to changes in the breast tissue.

However, breast cancer in girls and younger women is on the rise with a quarter of all breast cancers diagnosed in women before menopause.

I have had a history of benign breast cysts since my early twenties. These are harmless lumps, and have no significant link with breast cancer.

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In October 2007 I visited my GP for a routine examination and nothing untoward was found. But it seems her instinct knew better, and she sent me along anyway to the Whittington Hospital in North London where I underwent a mammogram and ultrasound examination.

The ultrasound revealed an abnormal lump and within minutes I was back in clinic with a consultant being prepared for a biopsy. I remember this time, and the days that followed, as some of the loneliest of my life.

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The results of the biopsy came back a few days later and it was confirmed that I had cancer - a grade two invasive tumour in the left breast. It is a chilling thought that had I left my screening until I was 50 there is a strong possibility I would have been dead. I was admitted for surgery within days of getting the result; no long waiting list or cancelled operation for me.

I firmly believe that there is no other health service in the world that would have made me feel so loved and cared for at such a critical and isolating time. I was given the option to take the private medicine route, but chose instead to stay with the NHS team at the Whittington Hospital that had supported me from the beginning of this journey and in whom I had absolute trust.

This support carried on throughout the process of two operations, the first to remove the tumour and a second to take out further cancerous tissue, and through weeks of radiotherapy treatment.

I wasn't simply bombarded with leaflets and told to go away and read them. Every step of the process was carefully and kindly explained to me, and I knew exactly what was about to happen to me at every stage. And it still continues now.

This present time, the months and years of treatment after the cancer has gone, can be even lonelier and more isolating than those very first shocking moments when you hear that you have the disease.

I know that I look well on the outside and I no longer have cancer, but I will be on medication for many years to come, and this already takes its toll on me both physically and emotionally.

The over-riding memory I have from my time at the Whittington hospital is a sense of safety and security.

Under-staffed and under pressure the NHS may be, but from the anaesthetist's banter pre-op to the gentleness of the trolley porter as I was wheeled from theatre to a ward, my consultant's gentle authority and the good humour and positive encouragement of the breast nurse - the kindness and concern shown to me by the breast cancer team was boundless.

I go back at the Whittington regularly. I am checked by a consultant or an oncologist every three months, and the hospital runs a breast cancer support group for women like me who find juggling the side-effects from the ongoing treatment with work and a busy lifestyle difficult to handle.

Each time I set foot inside the Whittington that feeling of safety overwhelms me again and I know that I am in the best place possible.

Every day I wake up and I know that I am one of the lucky ones. My cancer was caught in the early stages, my response to treatment has been positive, I am surrounded by loving family and friends and I am very much alive. But there is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that I owe my life to the diligence of my GP and the commitment of the NHS breast cancer team at the Whittington Hospital who treated and cared for me.

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