Good Housekeeping (UK)
A DOCTOR’S OWN GUIDE TO COPING WITH CANCER
Diagnosed with cancer, GP Philippa Kaye suddenly found she was the patient. She shares what the experience taught her, plus the signs we all need to look for
Philippa Kaye’s advice
Cancer. It’s probably one of the most feared diagnoses. We view cancer as the beginning of the end; something malicious and malevolent, which is out to spread and, in the end, kill you. I was 39 years old when I was diagnosed with cancer in May 2019; I was taken entirely by surprise, and so were my doctors. I had some pelvic pain, which was thought to be related to the multiple pelvic surgeries I’d had in the past, including three Caesarean sections. In fact,
I only saw a bowel surgeon after my gynaecologist suggested he may need one to be involved, in case scar tissue was sticking my womb to my bowel.
I remember it all so clearly: I was given a small amount of sedation for the colonoscopy and, as I lay back on the bed to relax, I glanced up at the screen in front of me and saw it. Saw something so obviously abnormal that it really could only be one thing. I looked at the bowel surgeon and he looked at me, and with that I knew.
After the procedure, the surgeon said he would write up my notes, but was coming to see me straight afterwards and he asked who was there with me. We do that as doctors, when we break bad news – we look for someone to be there to support you. But my mother (who had come to drive me home) got to the cubicle before the surgeon did. She took one look at my face and asked what was wrong. I am not sure that telling your own mother you have cancer is something you are supposed to do. She put her arm around me and did not let go, not through the conversation with the surgeon, not through the planning of what would happen next, not through me phoning my husband. Before I knew it, I was having more scans and tests, and then was sitting half-naked on a changing-room floor, ringing my best friend, who is a child and adolescent psychotherapist, and desperately asking her how I should tell my children when I got home.
There was no time to process, no time to digest, as within days I was having major surgery and a long hospital stay. Cancer tries to take over your body but it also tries to take over your whole life; all the roles you play and the jobs or functions you perform. Mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend; it invaded them all. Doctor, author, journalist; it tried to take them away. It is all you think about, all anyone wants to talk to you about, and suddenly you go from someone with an active life, to a patient on the cancer roller coaster, climbing up the ascent before freewheeling round the course of surgery, chemotherapy and more.
Being a doctor is an essential part of my being. I have wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember; it is part of my core, it is part of me, and I couldn’t let cancer take it from me. There are no rights or wrongs when dealing with cancer, whether you need or want to stop working or not. For me, continuing to do as much as I could was really important, it allowed me to remember that I, Philippa (and not ‘Philippa, bowel-cancer patient’), still existed. We all know someone who has had or is being treated for cancer, and the person they were before their diagnosis is still in there. Take your cue from your friends and loved ones, ask if they want to talk about it and, if so, go ahead. But if not, don’t take it as a slight; instead carry on and talk to them as normal – it will honestly help.
Cancer is not simply a physical illness with surgical and medical treatments; it affects you mentally, as do all health issues. The feelings around cancer are all so big and complex: you think about your own mortality and, as a relatively young adult with three young children at home, mine were harsh thoughts. Feelings are often conflicting, and then on top of the mixed emotions, you begin to feel guilt about whatever you’re feeling – it is all so confusing! Added to that, you are aware the people you care about are hurting and very frightened, too.
There are no rights or wrongs when you’re dealing with cancer
Other people’s fears are one of the reasons why they will insist that you stay positive and strong constantly. But it is okay to not be positive all the time, and whatever your feelings are, they are valid. You can be determined and frightened, you can be brave and feel fear and sadness – one does not negate the other. I didn’t feel brave or strong at the time; in fact, I didn’t feel I had any other choice but to keep going, to keep plodding along. Looking back, of course, there were choices, but the choice to have treatment was so firmly made in my own head that sometimes it didn’t feel like there was any choice at all. Being allowed to express that I didn’t feel brave, that I felt rubbish or sad, helped me more than I can say. If you can, find someone who will listen to you, be that a friend, family member, local cancer support group or therapist. I have seen a psychotherapist throughout my treatment and continue to do so. It’s a safe, non-judgmental space to allow me to express my feelings and has been invaluable.
REASONS FOR HOPE
One in two of us will have a cancer diagnosis at some stage in our lives, but it isn’t the beginning of the end. Especially if it is discovered and treated at an early stage, more and more of us are surviving cancer. Even if it isn’t curable, more and more of us are living with cancer, as opposed to dying from it. After another major surgery in September 2020, I am finally able to say I am cancer-free. Reflecting on my 18 months of surgeries and treatments, I now know this: that I was brave, I was strong, because it is in the very act of keeping going, even when you don’t want to, even when you rail against it; that dogged persistence shows your strength. I now sit back in my doctor’s chair and tell patients just that, and
I see their heads come up just a little bit, they make eye contact and I know that just by listening to their stories,
I have helped, even a tiny bit. In publishing Doctors Get Cancer Too (out 11 February), which I wrote as my own cathartic diary, I hope that if it happens to you or someone you love, by reading my story, you may feel less alone in yours.