I had to go to hospital today for my six months check up after having cancer in 2010. The wait in the corridor for the results is never pleasant, as with just a few words a doctor can change your whole world and predict very accurately when it’s going to end. No matter how many times you go through this and turn it around in your mind, it doesn’t really become less challenging.
Today the doctor was in a merry mood. ‘You are doing so well,’ she said, ‘much better than expected. When I saw you in the clinic last week having the blood test, I thought of asking you to come and meet some of my junior doctors. I want them to see that some people with a stage four ovarian cancer really do survive.’
I asked her, without mentioning any names, how many of the people who were in the clinic with me in 2010 had survived. ‘Only a handful,’ she said briskly. I particularly wondered about one very striking character, but didn’t have the strength at that moment to ask about her. I found out later in the day, purely by coincidence in an e mail from Trinity Hospice asking for donations, that she has died.
I was unexpectedly still very much alive, not a particularly joyful feeling, a bit like being unexpectedly whisked out of a line-up of prisoners awaiting execution; too close a call and leaving a residual feeling that I might not be so lucky next time, apart from thinking about the others who didn’t make it.
We got to talking about the surgeon who had performed the operation. He had obviously saved my life. I once thanked him for it which was like thanking a stone monolith. He was not a warm and cosy man, but a very good doctor, which is more important.
‘He wasn’t just brilliant, he was a very brave surgeon,’ she said. I wondered what she meant, picturing him hacking about wildly in a tent on a battle-field under shell-fire. And I wasn’t far wrong in that.
‘He was so thorough,’ she said, ‘cutting out every tiny speck of cancer, that some of his patients needed extra post-operative support and nursing. Sadly that was considered too expensive. Last year he said he felt totally unsupported and left the NHS. Now he only does private work. It is a tragic loss to us.’
For all of us. With a sinking feeling, I realised how lucky I was to get him when I did. I will never have that chance again, and neither will any other NHS cancer patient. It seems that great surgeons are now deemed ‘too expensive,’ and hospital managers prefer cut price cutters. If that is the way things are going, we must all prepare for increasingly dismal hospital results – and get ready to be very unlucky.