Communicating with people newly diagnosed with cancer

July 9, 2017

Even after 30 years of working in Oncology, I still find myself striving to uncover the answer to how we can consistently and effectively communicate with people who have recently been diagnosed with cancer. Whether it be as a nurse caring for a patient, or as someone supporting a loved one, or even conversing with a work colleague who has cancer. Although I might not have a definitive answer as to what is effective communication with people newly diagnosed with cancer. I do have some thoughts based on a pretty unique perspective on cancer, which I would like to share with you if you could spare me 15 minutes to read this post.

During that time I will try and simplify what is a potentially complex area of cancer care and offer you a simple practical approach which any healthcare professional could take that might help them in understanding their next newly diagnosed patients communication and informational needs.

Firstly I would like ask you if you remember the first patient with cancer you ever cared for? Can you do that? Good, now I would like you to keep thinking of that patient for the next 15 minutes while you read my post and try to remember how you were feeling and how you were interacting with them at that time.

If you’ve read my other blog posts you will know it was over 30 years ago now, when I was newly diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 25. At the time I was married with two children (one of whom was just 8 weeks old). And sadly, I still vividly remember the fear and sense of isolation I felt at that time only being made worse by a lack of communication from healthcare professionals (HCP’s).

In actual fact, it was the lack of communication during that time that inspired me to give up my engineering career and train to be a nurse. I knew it was unlikely I would ever become an expert in medicine but I did think I might do a better job communicating with cancer patients, or at the very least do no worse. How quickly I realised just how challenging the whole thing can be as I fumbled my way through my nurse training and then worked as a staff nurse on acute general wards before eventually specialising in Oncology at the Royal Marsden hospital.

Sadly, I left nursing in the NHS 22 years ago, which is a long time in Oncology and a lot has changed. For example, great advances have been made in improving survival rates over that time. Indeed, recent estimates suggest that as many as 2.5 million people are now alive and living with cancer in the UK1.

However, for the past 22 years cancer has continued to dominate my life working in Oncology in the Pharmaceutical industry. And, as a member of the public rather than a nurse, when I have continued to communicate with cancer patients on an all too regular basis as sadly work colleagues, friends and relatives have been diagnosed with cancer. I’m sure you can sense my disappointment when I tell you I have continued to see and hear about many of the shortfalls in the quality of communication I experienced, still being present today. Indeed from my own perspective, little had changed when recently my father was unexpectedly diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer during an acute hospital admission with unrelated renal failure. He died just 10 months later.

It’s not all been bad though. Around the same time, believe it or not, my border collie dog Bracken, was diagnosed with high-grade large cell multi-centric lymphoma. However, in contrast to my Father, the quality and amount of communication and information we received throughout his cancer journey was excellent. Bracken died over 4 years after he was diagnosed. But we’re not here to discuss effective communication with animals.

And the complexity of what constitutes effective communication with ‘human’ cancer patients is perhaps no more apparent than when considering the period immediately following diagnosis. So in an attempt to keep it simple using cartoon slides to illustrate my points, I would like to share with you the areas I feel are of particular note when discussing ‘the communication and informational needs of someone following a diagnosis of cancer’.


I think we all agree effective communication is a critical component of care and support for anyone with cancer, regardless of what stage of their journey they are at. However, studies concerned with the psychological impact of cancer have consistently identified the time immediately following a diagnosis as the most demanding period for the patient and their relatives. For many patients the sense of isolation is no more apparent amongst their family and friends than when they have just learned they have cancer. With social interaction often being minimal or non-existent during that time.

But knowing what to say to someone with cancer can be really difficult. Even for nurses. Deciding on how much to communicate, when and who should do it is challenging. Whether we might communicate too much or not enough, whether it’s the right time to start a conversation and whether it is the right topic, are just some of the complexities around effective communication. Not surprising then that patients often report experiencing a sense of isolation following their diagnosis. It is vital that we interact with patients, making ourselves available to answer questions, or to just listen. Avoiding the patient will probably only add to their sense of doubt and insecurity.

There is so much we can find out about the patient without having to know what to tell them at this early stage. There’s nothing wrong with admitting we don’t have all the answers so early in the patient’s journey.

It could be a great opportunity to demonstrate attentiveness, interest and friendliness, which are all qualities that the 2016 NHS Cancer Patient Experience Survey2 has identified as being just as important to a patients positive experience, as providing them with information.


Another point for consideration is that the patient’s reaction to their diagnosis can be heavily influenced by existing perceptions of cancer. Unfortunately with the growing incidence of the disease, in many cases the person may have already formed strong associations with the word cancer, either directly as a result of someone they know having experienced it or through hear say, or what they have read.

Sadly, we’re all too aware of how bad news tends to travel faster than good news. Either way it is important to remember a patients perception is likely to influence and be as unique as, their communication and informational needs.

Perhaps interaction could entail finding out what someone newly diagnosed already knows or thinks about their illness, in order that steps can be taken to correct any misunderstanding or concerns and begin to find out what their needs might be. We should also remember that how patients are affected by their cancer diagnosis, can have far reaching consequences beyond the patient themselves. It is estimated that for every person diagnosed with cancer, there are as many as 12 other people who are directly affected by that persons experience. Making it even more important that we get it right from the start as we see more and more people being diagnosed each year.


Interestingly enough, people with cancer seem to receive the majority of their information at the time of diagnosis and not at other stages along the pathway. Yet some publications including one in 2009 by Sheldon, et al3. Have suggested that almost 50% (43%) of patients would like more information than they are given about their cancer. For anyone hearing they have cancer for the first time or facing the diagnosis of recurrence or metastases, perhaps most of what is heard is not the discussion about their diagnosis, staging, implications, and treatment. Instead during that first visit, perhaps all the patient hears is “Blah, blah, CANCER, blah blah What people are told and what they hear are not always the same thing. Which makes me think we really need to embed information giving throughout the patient journey and not just at the beginning. And whenever we do, we should ensure that people understand the information we give them.

In the 2014 NHS Cancer patient experience survey4, 66% of patients said they were actually given easy to understand written information about the type of cancer they had. But I can’t help wondering what information the other 34% were given or rather not given. However, interestingly enough there is data that questions what might be going on here. In one study in 2008, by Jansen et al5. 260 patients with newly diagnosed cancer who had met with an oncologist for the first time were profiled. All patients were interviewed to determine what they were told about diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, and their answers were compared to audiotaped recordings of the actual conversations. Irrespective of age, participants recollected less than 50% of the information they had been given. Interestingly enough in that study, those patients who asked the most questions had the poorest recall. Which suggests to me that optimal information giving will require some thought on what information to give, who should give it and when. With much of the information needing to be given more than once and in multiple formats.


The rising numbers of patients alive with cancer in the UK are being driven by improved survival outcomes as well as an ageing population and increasing incidence rates. It was estimated that by the end of last year 1,000 patients would be diagnosed with cancer in the UK every single day6. It’s not surprising therefore to think that care will increasingly have to extend more and more into the community.

Whilst the most recent NHS Cancer Patient Experience Survey in 20162 has shown encouraging trends in many aspects of patient satisfaction with their cancer care in hospital, there still remains a need to improve support for patients and their carers in the community. Indeed, according to that survey:

  • A third of patients mentioned that their GPs and nurses did not support them enough whilst they were being treated.
  • 46% were not given enough care and help from health and social services post discharge.
  • For two in five patients (42%), their families or someone close to them were not given all the information they needed to look after them at home.

It would appear to me that the quality of communication and information outside the hospital setting needs to be more consistent with what seems to be going on inside the hospital.


I have to admit, there are probably more treatments ending with UZUMAB now, than there were chemotherapy agents when I started nursing. Which is good news for improving outcomes, but with progress often comes increasing complexity.

Patient consent is a legal prerequisite for anyone undergoing treatment for cancer, requiring sufficient and appropriate information in order to gain informed consent. Research tells us, that cancer patients who

  • receive good information and are spoken to with sensitivity,
  • feel they are being heard and involved in decisions
  • and who feel they are being supported with the consequences of their treatment

are more likely to rate the quality of their care experience favourably.

However, navigating our own way through the different treatment options and keeping up to date with trends is difficult enough, never mind trying to explain it to someone who perhaps has little or no medical background. This is even more challenging when you consider some patients will begin their cancer journey in non-specialist centres where their nurses may have little or no Oncology background.

During my work in Oncology, I have spent a lot of time trying to come up with ways to remind healthcare professionals particularly in the more general hospital setting on some simple steps, which could perhaps help them and their patients during the complex and psychologically demanding period immediately post diagnosis.

Using the acronym CAUTION, which has long been synonymous with the early detection of cancer, as a framework. I would like to hear your thoughts on the areas I am suggesting as particularly important in understanding what a newly diagnosed patient may need by way of support.

Communicating with the patient

Patients often experience a sense of isolation following a diagnosis of cancer. It is vital that healthcare professionals make themselves available to answer questions, or just listen. Avoiding the patient will only add to their sense of doubt and insecurity.

Ascertaining individual needs 

It is important to identify problems and needs specific to each individual patient. In particular, the nurse should recognise the patients informational needs and plan nursing care accordingly. Information should be given carefully and at a level appropriate to the individuals needs.

Understanding the disease 

A basic understanding of the different types of cancer will help nurses to anticipate and discuss with the patient, potential problems associated with their particular illness. REMEMBER, each cancer has its own prognosis.


For many patients the prospect of treatment can be more frightening than the disease itself. It is important to remember that careful management can minimise and even prevent many of the side-effects of treatment. A good understanding of what to expect will help both nurses and their patients anticipate and manage side-effects better.

 Involving significant others 

The patient should be encouraged where appropriate, to be involved with the planning of their care and treatment particularly with regards continued care and support. Involving family and friends can have much to offer in the way of support and encouragement.

 Organising resources

Successful management of people with cancer both inside and outside the hospital setting requires a multi-disciplinary approach. The nurse should be aware of the resources available and recognise when and where to get help. REMEMBER, many patients will require continued care and support whilst they are at home.


Your response to cancer patients and their diagnosis can hugely influence their ability to cope. A positive approach to the disease by nurses will go a long way towards altering preconceived negative attitudes.

In summary

We’ve discussed the importance of interaction, the influence of perception and the value of information. We have considered the need for consistency of care and highlighted the complexity of caring for someone who has been recently diagnosed with cancer. However, I promised I would keep it simple and try to offer you a practical approach that could perhaps help you in your daily practice when meeting your next newly diagnosed patient, so here it is;

At the beginning of my presentation, I asked if you could remember the first person you cared for with cancer and I suspect a lot of you could. That’s because I also remember my first patient, his name was Jack Fisher and he was newly diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. And why do I think I remember my first cancer patient from 29 years ago? I think I remember him because of how I felt and how I interacted with him during that time.

You see I felt very scared at the time and desperate not to make any mistakes particularly with my very first cancer patient. I needed to be extremely Attentive to Jack and his needs, to ensure I didn’t miss anything. Being new to caring for a cancer patient, I had a lot to learn. So I was Interested in everything that was going on with Jack during that time. As for being Friendly, well all I can say is I felt so out of my depth at that time, that I needed as many friends as I could get, so being Friendly seemed a natural approach.

Interesting isn’t it that the most recent NHS Cancer Patient Experience Survey tells us that for many patients attentiveness, interest and friendliness shown by healthcare professionals are considered just as important positive contributors to a patients experience as giving information. Yet they are something even a rookie first year student nurse can do, without even thinking about it. I wish I could honestly say I adopted the same approach to every subsequent patient I cared for as I became increasingly desensitised to the enormous challenge a cancer diagnosis can be for someone.

If there’s one thing I hope my blog post will convince you to do, it is to treat your next newly diagnosed cancer patient with the same level of genuine attentiveness, interest and friendliness, I am certain you showed your first.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I hope you found it useful and thought provoking. Any comments or reactions would be very welcome.


  1. Maddams J, Utley M, Møller H. Projections of cancer prevalence in the United Kingdom, 2010-2040. Br J Cancer 2012; 107: 1195-1202. Macmillan analysis based on extrapolation of 2010 and 2020 projections that the number of people living with cancer will hit an estimated 2.5 million in 2015
  2. NHS England Cancer Patient Experience Survey 2016 Summary of key national and local results 2015. (Revised 13 July 20-16)
  3. Sheldon H, et al. An Evaluation of the National Cancer Survivorship initiative test community projects. Picker Institute. 2009
  4. NHS England Cancer Patient Experience Survey 2014
  5. Jansen J, Butow PN, van Weert JCM, et al. Does age really matter? Recall of information presented to newly referred patients with cancer.J Clin Oncol. 2008; 26(33):5450-5457.
  6. Macmillan Cancer Support estimates 2014. Incidence predictions are based on the assumption that age specific all cancer incidence rates remain constant at 2012 rates. Predictions based on applying the UK 2012 incidence rates for 5 year age groups to 2012-based population projections from the Office for National Statistics. Latest incidence figures for each nations taken from Office of National Statistics, |ISD Scotland, Welsh Cancer Intelligence and Surveillance Unit and from personal communication with the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry (May 2014)


“Do we want more kids?”

March 5, 2016

Easter 1986

Eventually all the tests were complete and the results were in. I was told I needed radiotherapy which would require six weeks of treatment at Cookridge Hospital. Considering where I lived, it was suggested that I stay in hospital Monday to Friday each week and go home at the weekend. That way they said, I wouldn’t have to endure a seventy-mile round trip in ‘Ye Olde’ ambulance.

Easter was looming close and they wanted to start my treatment before the break. The radiotherapy planning was a slow process, involving many more x-rays and scans. I also had eight little tattoos marked on my body so they could accurately line me up on the linear accelerator each time I had my treatment.

I didn’t ask many questions in those days, I assumed they would tell me everything I needed to know. One radiotherapy technician even told me I would be having 50 Grays of radiation or in other words 50,000 sMv’s. Yeah I know,………….. I had to ask him:

Me: Is that a lot of radiation?

Radiotherapist: It’s the equivalent of about 500,000 normal chest X-rays.

Me: A lot then?!!!

Unfortunately I was soon to learn it’s a risky business taking a passive role. Finally they announced my treatment could start. Summoned from the ward, I made my way through the many corridors to the radiotherapy suite. I still remember the weird smell inside the linear accelerator room as I undressed and put on a theatre gown. Once I was positioned on the radiation machine everyone vacated the room.  I felt very alone as I wondered what this invisible treatment would be like and whether or not I would feel any pain. All of a sudden a doctor burst into the room.

Doctor: “You do have two children, right?”

Me: “Er, yes I do” Wondering if he was about to suggest they join me!

Doctor: “Do you want any more?”

Me: “Er, why?” Could he not see I was too busy for that sort of thing right now.

It was a really weird situation. I was lying on my back trying to psyche myself up for the treatment and some guy wanted to know about my five-year plan! He came close enough for me to finally see him.

Doctor: “Unfortunately the inverted-Y radiotherapy you’ve been prescribed will almost definitely leave you sterile and unable to have any more children”

After what seemed an uncomfortably long pause.

Me: “Can I discuss it with my wife?”

At that, he aborted my treatment and suggested I call my wife that day.

It could have been a really difficult call to make, however considering we’d just had our second child ten weeks earlier we both agreed having more children wasn’t high enough on our agenda right now to risk compromising my treatment. I would have my first treatment that evening.

The content in my blog is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for a health care professionals advice. Please consult your own appropriate health care provider about the applicability of any of my opinions with respect to your own symptoms or medical conditions. The information in my blog does not constitute legal or technical advice….sorry!


“Even more tests!”

February 29, 2016

Nearly Easter – 1986

I spent the week undergoing many tests and investigations as part of the staging process. It was a pretty traumatic time, I remember during that first week I had no fewer than twenty-four blood samples taken. I didn’t have a needle phobia but this level of intensity was causing me some serious anxiety.

Despite the needle trauma, I thought nothing would compare with the bone marrow biopsy until I had something called a lymphangiogram.


IMG_0639They injected die in between all my toes which made my eyes water a lot. This was apparently to expose  the lymph vessels on the top of feet so they could cut them insert cannulas which were attached to two large syringes full of blue dye!! The die was then injected into both my feet simultaneously very very slowly. I remember the weirdest sensation and pain all over my body as the dye forced it’s way into a place I am sure wasn’t designed to accommodate it. After about thirty minutes I was then taken to yet another scanning machine, which took numerous images of the lymphatic system throughout my body and seemed to take forever.

Much to everyone’s bemusement shortly after the lymphangiogram, blue dye started running down my leg. The dye they’d put in was just coming back out again!! My surgery wound was open again and required dressing every day. It did amuse me every time a new nurse changed it as I watched their reaction when they saw what looked like blue blood in my dressing and I said “Perhaps I was really royalty and you should’ve given me that general anaesthetic after all?” Not that anyone else found it amusing.

The content in my blog is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for a health care professionals advice. Please consult your own appropriate health care provider about the applicability of any of my opinions with respect to your own symptoms or medical conditions. The information in my blog does not constitute legal or technical advice….sorry!

“Just a few tests, that’s all”

August 30, 2015

March 1986

Cancer perceptionI spent the first day at Cookridge Hospital going back and forth to the pathology department, suffering one blood test after another. There were no mobile phones or lap-tops in those days (well, not in my world) so keeping the family up to date wasn’t easy. There was a ‘mobile’ payphone, which could be brought to your bed area but in the old style ‘Nightingale Ward’ there was little or no privacy.

In between the blood tests and visits from numerous people in white coats, I began getting to know the other ‘poor souls’ optimistically hoping that I would be spending a lot of time with them. It turned out five of us were from the same town and we were all twenty-five years old or younger. Two of us had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, two had testicular cancer and one had Hodgkins disease. How likely was that? I often wonder if the large ICI plant in our town which made weed-killer had anything to do with that……..I’m just saying!!. Almost everyone was totally bald and those who’d been on treatment a while had a yellowy ‘ill’ look to their complexion and everyone seemed to have tubes going into them or were they coming out of them? It was difficult to tell. Nevertheless they were becoming my friends and it was good to make some friends.

ChemotherapyIt was like moving into a new neighbourhood, everyone knew each other except me and they were almost competing with one another to offer me advice. Some of their information was useful, but some totally useless, such as their assurance that I had nothing to worry about with the bone-marrow biopsy I had scheduled for the next day. It later transpired my advisors were lucky enough to have had a general anaesthetic when they had theirs done, a luxury I was to be denied as a result of the operating theatre being refurbished that week………Lucky me!

Around six O’clock my Dad arrived on the ward, looking almost as ill as my new friends. It was like the kryptonite effect on Superman, he really didn’t do illness and hospitals but it was good to see him. Unfortunately I had very little to tell him other than that the investigations had started and that I had made lots of new friends he probably doesn’t want to meet yet. I felt so sorry for my Dad that evening he was so uncomfortable with being there but at least he got to see me and I hadn’t lost any hair, or turned yellow. My Mum on the other hand was stuck at home 30 miles away and was probably going mad with worry and as for my wife, well I can only imagine what she was going through.

The content in my blog is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for a health care professionals advice. Please consult your own appropriate health care provider about the applicability of any of my opinions with respect to your own symptoms or medical conditions. The information in my blog does not constitute legal or technical advice….sorry!

“Selling my soul to the Devil!”

August 25, 2015

IMG_0575It was Summer 1994; I had been a nurse for just over eight years and was beginning to feel I was losing my personal war against inequality of cancer care, when I decided to look for a full-time position in the pharmaceutical industry. It hadn’t been an easy decision or an obvious one for that matter, I had spent weeks soul searching, just to make sure I still had a soul to sell, to the Devil.

I had found the last eighteen months as an oncology nurse working in a district general hospital extremely challenging. I had learned some new things; like how to dodge a karate kick, cope with patients’ guilt ridden sons and daughters, oh and where to find their parents when they disappeared off the ward. (Which was usually at the bus stop just outside the hospital) On a more constructive note; I had also learned CPR to the highest level, which sadly, had never been my intention. It was time to re-think things and focus back on cancer.

Knowing that the largest amount of cancer research investment came from the pharmaceutical industry I figured it might be worth while taking a closer look. But what could I do for them? As luck would have it, Amgen (a large U.S. biotech company) were looking for a nurse advisor……..’I could do that’ I thought. ‘For a start I’d advise them to lower their prices!’ Yes, I’m afraid I was just as naive as everyone else.

Selling my soulThe company was looking to hire two experienced oncology or haematology nurses to provide a free educational service to UK nurses working in oncology. Despite having an inherent aversion to public speaking, it didn’t take much for me to overlook such a trivial issue. As an NHS nurse it wasn’t difficult to be impressed by pharmaceutical company salaries and this job would come with a company car, complete with phone and a lap-top! How cool was that?

First though, I would have to be interviewed, which would entail a trip to their impressive UK office in the university town of Cambridge! Time to dig out my cancer books and re-familiarise myself with all things cancer and of course elephantiasis!

I didn’t own a computer in those days, so I was restricted as to what I could find out about my prospective employers . I knew they were a significant player in the world of bio-technology and that they had a new drug I couldn’t even spell……….and that was pretty much it. I had a week until my interview, so I could either use that time; to do as much research as possible, go and buy a suit, or figure out a way to bribe someone into giving me the job. Instead I chose to do neither. ‘Besides working in Pharmaceuticals was probably rubbish anyway, right?’………..

The content in my blog is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for a health care professionals advice. Please consult your own appropriate health care provider about the applicability of any of my opinions with respect to your own symptoms or medical conditions. The information in my blog does not constitute legal or technical advice.

‘I still have a cracking plan……’

August 18, 2015

“No long faces now?….”

It was the day of my check-up when I heard I had passed my nursing entrance exam! However, in light of my recent illness the nursing school said they would need a reference from my Oncologist before they could confirm my acceptance.

I was quietly confident my Oncologist would be very supportive of my cracking plan. So I was quite surprised at what he said when I saw him during my check-up.

Oncologist: “Are you sure you want to be a nurse?”

Me: “Er, yes”. (I actually wanted to say ‘Er no, I think you’ve got the wrong patient’ but I thought better of it)

Oncologist: “An oncology nurse?”

Me: “Of course.”

Oncologist: “It will be very hard work, both physically and emotionally.”

Me: ” I know, I used to be an engineer.” (He didn’t even smile at my joke)

Oncologist: (Following what seemed a very long pause) “You can’t go around with a long face you know”

I was surprised he felt the need to say that; I thought my engineer joke was quite funny. Then again it wasn’t that funny and I guess he was used to seeing me under very worrying circumstances and understandably may have thought I was a bit of a miserable sod!

I assured him he had nothing to worry about. “Good” he said, “Because I’ve just written to the Chief Executive of the hospital telling him how disgusted I am that the health authority sees fit to ask me for a guarantee that your lymphoma won’t relapse. Instead, they should embrace your enthusiasm and support you in getting your life back.”  Then he smiled and said “Don’t let me down, will you?”

“Day one as a student nurse. Excellent, I wasn’t the only male and I wasn’t the oldest in my group….nor the tallest!  Although I did have the least hair, sadly”

I was delighted when I eventually heard that my application had been successful and I would be commencing training in the summer. It was time to hand in my notice at work and tell my burly engineering colleagues that I was leaving……….. to become a Student Nurse!

As I told people about my nurse training course the question of salary increasingly came up. I was trying not to think of that too much, it was hard enough getting my head around such a huge career change without dwelling on something as trivial as a 70% pay cut. “Yes it would be tough financially” I would say to them, “But I think I need to do this”

My wife and my Mum were very supportive, however my Dad seemed less impressed. With a one-year old at home and my wife only working part-time we were below the national poverty line which meant our older child got free school meals. It was a bit embarrassing I guess, but then it would only be for three years!…….would it not? I figured perhaps it was time to do some serious money-making cartooning!

The content in my blog is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for a health care professionals advice. Please consult your own appropriate health care provider about the applicability of any of my opinions with respect to your own symptoms or medical conditions. The information in my blog does not constitute legal or technical advice.

“I have a cracking plan!!!”

August 15, 2015
How do you revise for a nurses entrance exam?

‘Elephantiasis is…….”

It was Spring 1987, just under a year since I had finished my cancer treatment. It seemed a great idea to me;…….. I would apply to my local hospital for a place on the nurse training course and then become a cancer nurse, simples! Unfortunately however, because I was a mature student I first had to sit an entrance exam. I had no idea how to prepare myself for a nursing exam. I thought I might start by digging out my readers digest health books again and revise what I already knew about elephantiasis.

Fully swotted up on everything you ever needed to know about elephantiasis, I arrived for the exam. The room was full of eighteen-year old girls who all looked like exam experts. Probably because they were so used to them, having not even left school yet. I was definitely the oldest, ugliest and male-ist of them all!

I remember feeling glad that I hadn’t told too many people about my brilliant plan to become a nurse. Just think how embarrassing it would be, telling people I couldn’t even pass the entrance exam. Not only did I need to achieve a minimum exam score just to be considered for a nursing course, I also had to perform well enough to secure a place on the higher qualified Staff Nurse course, (which was crucial for my plan to work). There was quite a lot at stake,….at least I was clever enough to know that much. As I scanned the exam paper I had a pleasant surprise; just about every question was mathematical in nature, it was perfect for an engineer.

After the exam I felt quite smug as I joined the other applicants for a coffee and listened to them complaining about there being far too many numerical questions. I was fairly confident I’d done pretty well in the exam, however the big question remained as to whether or not the Health Authority would be willing to invest in training a twenty-six year old ex-engineer, who had barely finished his cancer treatment!

"Who would have thought it, Maths in a nursing exam!"

“Who would have thought it, Maths in a nursing exam!”

After the exam I had an interview with the course tutors and told them I really wanted to do the three year staff nurse course. They told me I would have to do very well in the exam if I wanted to get on that course. They also told me they had requested a reference from my oncologist on the assumption I would get the required exam results. I hadn’t thought of that! I began wondering what my oncologist might say about my potential to be a nurse. I was going to see him for a check-up later in the week so I decided I would ask him.

It was a long week, not least because of my impending check-up with the oncologist; which always put me into some kind of ‘pseudo-disease relapse state’ where every ache and pain seemed a signal that my disease was returning. But also because I was still waiting for my exam results. I hated getting exam results, because mine were usually bad! I began to have self doubt about my plan; “Who was I trying to kid? Why am I doing this so soon after my cancer? Do I even care if I don’t get into nursing, it’s probably rubbish anyway?” I asked myself, trying my best not to pin my hopes too high for fear of failure. I spent most of my spare time that week drawing cartoons, which always seemed to help whenever I was stressed…….

The content in my blog is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for a health care professionals advice. Please consult your own appropriate health care provider about the applicability of any of my opinions with respect to your own symptoms or medical conditions. The information in my blog does not constitute legal or technical advice.

“Let’s talk about it” – (Part 2)

August 10, 2015

It was just two days later when I had to go to hospital for a week. The plan being that I was to undergo numerous investigations and tests to further determine what course of treatment I should have and then hopefully start it as soon as possible.

I’m not sure what upset people the most, that I had cancer or that I was going to Cookridge. Many cancer specialist hospitals in those days had an unfortunate reputation similar to that of a haunted house, lots of people go there, but very few come out alive.

My Dad took me to the hospital, he worked in Ilkley so it was pretty much on his way. He dropped me off very early at 7.30am because he had to be at work for 9.00am (I guess that’s where I get my conscientiousness from), I didn’t have to be there until 10.00am!.

Cookridge HospitalAfter sitting for a couple of hours in the reception area, I was taken to a separate building, which could only be described as an old air raid shelter. There I was introduced to other young men who were being treated for cancer. Some of these guys looked really ill. I began to think perhaps I’d been in denial up until now, I don’t think I really believed anyone my age got cancer, it’s for old people like those in the waiting room. It was then I began to realize why my Dad insisted on dropping me off so quickly. He hated hospitals at the best of times, how the hell was he going to cope with this when he called in on his way home from work!

The content in my blog is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for a health care professionals advice. Please consult your own appropriate health care provider about the applicability of any of my opinions with respect to your own symptoms or medical conditions. The information in my blog does not constitute legal or technical advice

“Let’s talk about it” (Part 1)

August 9, 2015

March 1986

I don’t think either of us spoke during the journey home after our meeting with the Oncologist from Leeds. I remember thinking I must tell work, but tell them what? They might sack me. Times were hard for the engineering industry, I’d already narrowly escaped two rounds of redundancy and who knows when the next might be.

“Bad news travels fast!”

I decided to strike while the iron was hot and went to work the next day to tell my bosses. I figured if I went while I still looked okay then they might think it’s not that bad. So I told them, but I’m not sure what they thought, in fact I wasn’t sure what anyone thought about my illness because they never told me. Mind you, what do you say to a twenty-five year old who eight weeks ago was showing off his newly born son and was now telling you he had cancer.

After that, I was on a roll, so I decided to tell my Mum and Dad next. They had moved down from Scotland recently, having aborted their attempt at early retirement. I think my Mum was behind that decision, she probably wanted to be nearer her grandchildren. Whilst I wasn’t their only child, my older brother’s lifestyle as a freelance artist and song writer afforded him little incentive to consider a long-standing relationship, let alone start a family.

Telling my parents was the hardest thing to do. I remember thinking I could be a doctor as I made up my mind I would explain using anything other than the ‘C’ word.

“I have lymphoma”. That was easy.

‘What’s that then?”

After a painful pause, “It’s a type of cancer”

Doh, there I said it.

“Where do you have it?”

“In my lymph nodes”

“What are those?”

And so it continued, the blind leading the blind, what I really wanted to tell them was that I had cancer and I had no idea what happens next because I’m stupid……………………..

The content in my blog is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for a health care professionals advice. Please consult your own appropriate health care provider about the applicability of any of my opinions with respect to your own symptoms or medical conditions. The information in my blog does not constitute legal or technical advice

“There’s good news and bad news” (Part 2)

August 7, 2015

“The baby will be starting school soon”


We arrived at the specialist clinic in good time, along with about three hundred other people with the same 2.15pm appointment, but we were different, we were younger by about fifty years for a kick off and we were carrying an eight week old baby. I remember thinking neither would be the case if this queue doesn’t speed up. I was ageing fast and the baby would soon be starting school!

Eventually our time came, I went into the consultation room alone, thinking I could ask dumb questions if I was alone. The Specialist popped his head in and asked if anyone was with me. He wanted my partner to be present and said he would be back in a few minutes. The nurse called her in from the waiting room and she took up position standing at the bottom of the examination table with the baby in her arms.

We exchanged puzzled looks and then the doctor and nurse returned. I remember vividly his reaction when he saw my partner and new baby son in the room. He asked if we knew who he was and if anyone had told me why I was here. We both said no, much to his dismay, as he suggested my partner take a seat. Perhaps it was a ‘fight or flight’ reaction that suddenly hit her but she refused his offer, assuring him she and the baby fine, after all we’d been sitting in his overcrowded waiting room for an eternity!  “I’d prefer to stand” she said.

“I was clearly out of my depth”

I can’t remember the exact words he used other than cancer was in there somewhere as he explained what was wrong with me. I do remember he said something about going to a hospital in Leeds for treatment. Unfortunately I do remember exactly what I said when he asked if we’d any questions, “how long will I be off work?” I don’t think he expected that.  Either I hadn’t heard a word he’d said or I was the most conscientious person he’d ever met. I knew it was neither, it wasn’t the first time and certainly wouldn’t be the last time I’d feel out of my depth in the world of Oncology.


“There’s good news and bad news” (Part 1)

August 7, 2015

“By now I trust that you have had the opportunity to learn more about me and Oncology Limited on the web-site. In an attempt to further expand on my claims of an alternative angle to oncology, I intend to regularly post thoughts and opinions and also share my experiences of a disease that has occupied more than half of my life to date and which will perhaps offer a ‘unique and diverse’ perspective of cancer.”

“Good news and bad news!”

I suppose I was never really a great engineer but I did okay, I had been working as an engineer for nine years since leaving school and I was qualified!. However, I do wonder how long I would have kept doing it, had the life-changing event never happened.

“I was never a great engineer, but I did okay……..”

It was January 1986 when our son and second child arrived, he was a beautiful bundle of fun who was a welcome companion for his three-year old sister. The pregnancy had thankfully been uneventful, which had afforded me the opportunity to do lots of overtime and prepare financially for our new addition. I was twenty-five when our second child arrived and had enjoyed good health all my life, so despite finding a couple of lumps and feeling pretty dreadful most of the past couple of months, I blamed it on doing too much overtime and had decided to put off going to the doctor until after the birth, thinking a few days off sick would be a break to enjoy the baby – no paternity leave in those days.

Why is it no GP (general practitioner) has ever taken me seriously on the very few occasions I’ve troubled them with doing their job? It took another three weeks of antibiotics and an embarrassing re-visit to my doctor before he eventually and reluctantly referred me to a surgeon to look at my lumps.

The surgery went well, however no matter how often I asked, no-one could tells us what the lumps might be, they just kept saying they had to be removed. After a brief stay in hospital I was sent home for a couple of week’s well-earned rest, I was exhausted. Unfortunately things went from bad to worse, a spell where I had to crawl upstairs because my legs had stopped working, followed by large amounts of clear fluid literally pouring out of my wound spurred on the district nurse (who was by that time, visiting twice a day, I think to see if I’d run out of fluid) to get me back in to see the surgeon.

The surgeon wasn’t a nice man and he seemed to take a particular dislike to the fact that I’d somehow ruined his handy work. Two guys who could only be described as the Chuckle Brothers visited me and began prodding and feeling under my arms and around my neck. They gave no suggestion as to what might be wrong with me but they did ask me if I was homosexual……. how embarrassing was that back in the 1980’s? I was an engineer for goodness sake………and I had two kids! It wasn’t to be the only time I’d thank God for having kids at such a young age.

Eventually I was sent home and told to visit a clinic in two days time to see a specialist who would hopefully be able to get to the bottom of what was going on.

I think to describe myself as naïve is a huge understatement. Looking back, it was amazing how an engineer could know so little about his own body and be so out of his depth trying to describe his symptoms and concerns.

The two days passed and incredibly the leaking from the surgery wound had stopped, I do actually think I’d run out lymph fluid and I’ll explain why later. The district nurse (who I have to say was brilliant and really the first person who’d ever shown any concern or sincerity about our predicament) seemed sad that I had been referred to the specialist but assured us he would be able to tell me what was going on……………To be continued.

The content in my blog is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and is not intended to be a substitute for a health care professionals advice. Please consult your own appropriate health care provider about the applicability of any of my opinions with respect to your own symptoms or medical conditions. The information in my blog does not constitute legal or technical advice.

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