Tracey Cheetham Pt. 1 (on cancer and the NHS)

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Here’s a new friend I met on Twitter. Tracey is a number of things, as she states on her website. I’ll let her introduce herself. “I am a number of things, a Mom of 3, a wife, a PhD Student, a Teacher, an opinionated, well-traveled, feminist, socialist woman. Oh, and I’m quite smiley.”

What was your immediate thought when you were told you had cancer?

From finding the “lump” and while undergoing all the tests, I was convinced it was not going to be breast cancer. Statistics were on my side, I was too young to get it. When I sat in the Consulting room with the (wonderful) team of Doctors and my Consultant told me that I had cancer, I had quite a pragmatic response. Once I knew it was there, I wanted it gone. I booked my surgery to take place within a week. Once the reality of the situation hit me, I could only think of my children and how I did not want to leave them. If I ever needed motivation to fight the cancer with everything I had, that was it. My children were so young, I could not contemplate them having to grow up without me there to support and guide them. I had the best care and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the NHS.

Whether or not you are a religious person, did you pray about your situation?

I think that when one is faced with one’s own mortality in that way, any shred of faith is magnified and one clings on to anything that provides comfort and hope. I prayed everyday during the worst part of my treatment, I also found myself, as a grown woman, wanting my Mom to be there. She passed in 2004 and I miss her enormously. I do attend mass but as a scientist, I have a very practical approach to my faith. I am lucky to attend a church where our priest accepts that science and religion can coexist.

When you were diagnosed with cancer, did you join any type of support group or read books by those who have battled cancer and survived?

Yes. I am a believer in research and gather information about whatever it is I am doing. I even went onto the clinical websites and re-calculated my risk index score. The medical team had given me this as part of the pathology reports; it wasn’t that I didn’t believe them, it was more that it helped me to maintain a feeling of control, in a situation where the reality was, that I had none. I was fortunate to have a wonderful Macmillan Nurse, who I am now friends with. She has helped pull me and my family through some of the darkest times.

I attended a support group for a while and am still in touch with a wonderful group of women who were all diagnosed within two to three months of me. We lost one of our number in January and this hit us all hard. One other has also developed a second unrelated case of breast cancer and it is when things like that happen, that the fears I am usually able to push to the back of my mind, return.

I found that after a year of being surrounded by cancer, I had to take a step away and I stopped going to the support group. This helped me to put some distance between me and the disease and helped my mental recovery. Physically it is hard to get over cancer but mentally, I’m not sure I ever will completely.

Since you write quite a bit already with your blog and for school, have you ever thought of writing a book on your experience beating cancer?

There are a lot of books out there about breast cancer. I have considered writing one from the perspective of my children but I don’t think that I am particularly an expert. The books I disliked were those that told the story of one person, in an autobiographical format. I’m sure it was very cathartic for them to write it, but gave me less help.

Your treatment at the NHS, as related in your blog, was tremendous. Why does there seem to be a discrepancy between how you were treated and the many horror stories people hear about the NHS?

In any organisation as big as the NHS, there will occasionally be things that go wrong. The fact is that the majority of people get exceptionally good service from the NHS but this is rarely reported, as it is the norm,
Consequently, when a serious error occurs it is splashed all over every newspaper. Under the previous conservative government, the NHS was decimated; due to cuts, wards full of clinical beds lay empty as a large number of people waited more than six months for an operation. This was reversed under Labour, with the number of people waiting that long being reduced to a single figure.

Do you think the stories in the papers and the stories people tell of negative NHS experiences are made up or exaggerated? Or do you personally know people who have had bad NHS experiences?

The NHS is a wonderful institution, it provides healthcare free to all. There is never a time in the UK, when someone has to make a decision about their health, based on whether they can afford it. Within any organisation operating on the scale of the NHS, there will be people who do not work to the standards required of them and this reflects badly on the organisation as a whole. I do know of a couple of people who have had a less positive experience than I did, but they are very few and far between.

The British press is generally very negative. Pick up any British newspaper and it is full of bad stories, for instance, I once read a story that said 5% of Maternity units were not meeting a particular standard. This is a typical British Press negative spin on a story – what about the 95% of them that are meeting or exceeding the standard? The British press seem to love it when the England Football team do badly, we lose at Wimbledon, Summer is a wash out and a politician does something wrong. It is a shame, we have a lot to celebrate and be proud of, but that isn’t news.

What steps can a woman who has beat breast cancer take to keep it from recurring?

I really don’t know. Even my carers said that they couldn’t promise that my cancer would not return, but there are things that can be done to reduce the risk, such as taking Tamoxifen or similar for the five years following diagnosis. I am also trying to maintain as fit and healthy a lifestyle as possible. I am much more careful with chemicals and additives in my food. I buy fresh produce and cook, we never have ready-meals and I would rather my children have natural sugar, than artificial sweeteners. The incidence of breast cancer in the western developed world has escalated alarmingly over the past fifty years, while in the far east, women in China and Japan have a much lower chance of developing breast cancer. The reasons for this are unknown, but the biggest lifestyle difference between these parts of the world is diet. We eat far more dairy and processed foods and while there is no research suggesting it is to blame, I am feeding my children as naturally as possible and encouraging them to be aware of what they put into their bodies.

Having lost my own Mom due to smoking, I have never smoked and I drink in moderation. I am trying to be as healthy as I can be but I know that cancer can be indiscriminate and a fluke error in DNA replication can be the trigger in someone whether they are fit and healthy or not. At the time of my diagnosis I was probably at my fittest. The key is early detection and I would encourage people to be aware of their own bodies and mindful of changes. Getting any changes that you notice checked out, is so important.

How long has it been since your bout with cancer and how are you feeling these days?

I was diagnosed in March 2007, so I have passed the first benchmark of two-years. The next is five-years, when, as long as I remain cancer-free, I shall be discharged from the 6-monthly cycle of appointments and will just have to go once per year for a check-up.

Read part 2 – Tracey on Travel