Thursday, 26 January 2012

G is for Gratitude...

After a year of private healthcare which often involved experiencing the kind of hospital cuisine that NHS patients can only dream of,  I seem to have fallen back to earth with an abrupt bump. My insurers have decided not to fund the current drugs that I'm on, namely capecitabine and lapatinib - because they know that there's the risk that I'll be on them for the long term. I'm hoping that this will certainly be the case and that this current chemo and targeted therapy combi will keep those pesky cancer cells at bay for a while. I'm not keen to use up the arsenal of drugs too quickly, especially since I know that there isn't exactly a bottomless pit available when it comes to treatments for metastatic cancer. So with this knowledge at the forefront of my mind, I'm still juicing with a passion. I'm still taking the chinese herbal drugs, the aspirin and the turmeric. Who knows what such an eclectic cocktail of herbs and spices is actually doing to my insides ? Still no matter, let's call it an insurance policy that I hope I'll never have to call on. Regarding the hardcore drugs that my insurers won't fund, in this instance I've been lucky. I have the good old NHS to fall back on and will switch to this beloved, often maligned national institution once my current prescription ends.

But the other day I had to go to Guy's to sign some consent papers and I walked into what I can only describe as the busy mayhem of an early morning NHS clinic. The waiting room, which felt like one large refectory, had none of the complimentary teas and coffees on display which I had previously took for granted in the world of corporate waiting lounges. Neither did it have the glossy escapism magazines that often seduced me. Instead I saw a ticket dispenser where patients took numbered bits of paper as if they were taking part in a lottery. I saw more cancer patients in one room than I'd probably ever seen in my lifetime. Young, old, white, black, asian, fat, thin, short, bald, hirsute, male and female: there was an example to fit every demographic of the current population of Great Britain. I still find it strange that the mention of the word 'cancer' seems to make so many people uncomfortable - especially when (going by the numbers of patients in the waiting room) way too many of us seem to be afflicted with this disease.

But I waited and watched and watched and waited and by the time I was called in to see my doctor (the very same that I saw as a private patient) I began to feel much more grateful. Grateful that I live in a country where I can move so seamlessly between private and public care. Grateful that I live in a country where we don't yet have a two-tiered health system - where I can see the very same consultant oncologist on the NHS that I saw as a private patient. Grateful that regardless of class, creed or colour, the NHS offers free healthcare to all. Sitting in that waiting room watching a man with a wooden cane shuffle uneasily forward to speak to the receptionist, I began to feel a touch of guilt. Because what I've always felt when I walk into a private hospital and I use the designer creams and drink the posh herbal teas, is the feeling that this 'luxury' should be available to everyone. When you've been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, usually after having grafted your way through life and by dutifully paying your taxes and national insurance payments in the process, being pampered with posh grub and perfumed creams should be a given, not a privilege for the select few. Just as I was mulling over this communist manifesto in my head and starting to feel more and more like the main man himself, I was called in to see my doctor. We talked about the side-effects of the drugs, the fact that my white blood cell count is a bit on the low side at the moment and the hope that we both have that this disease will become a chronic illness that I can live with rather than one that will finish me off. Regardless of how much I like my doctor and the fact that we can start off talking about cancer and end up gossiping about fashion and childcare and the frustration of family members (namely partners and over-protective mothers), I always realise that nothing brings me down to earth more abruptly then a trip to see my oncologist. And of course, this is what you would expect. Because it doesn't matter how much make-up I'm wearing, or how healthy I might look or just how pink the shoes that I chose to wear might be, when I'm sitting among the masses in an oncology clinic looking at the motley crue of patients waiting to see their respective doctors, all I can think of is the obvious. I'm sitting in a waiting room with a room full of cancer patients. Cancer patients. How the hell did I get here ?