My cancer scare taught me the NHS deserves our full support - Chris Ackroyd

At a glance you could be forgiven for thinking the National Health Service is broken beyond repair.

Anyone who has waited in A&E for hours upon endless hours, hung on the telephone in a queue to get a doctor’s appointment, tried to find an NHS dentist, or who is limping along in life on some interminable list for an operation can attest to that.

Almost six and a half million people last November – a staggering one in ten of us – were on a waiting list for planned treatment including surgery. What’s more over 330,000 had been waiting for more than a year – pre pandemic, that was around a thousand.

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The statistics regarding cancer treatment are equally, if not more, shocking because cancer will effect one in two of us. Caught early and coupled with miraculous new therapies the cancer survival rates are potentially better than they have ever been.

A hospital ward. Picture by PA Archive/PA ImagesA hospital ward. Picture by PA Archive/PA Images
A hospital ward. Picture by PA Archive/PA Images

But the crucial words are ‘caught early’ and considering it is suggested last November 40 per cent of patients waited longer than the two month target from GP referral to first treatment that makes for pretty scary reading.

So this week I am here to tell you gratefully, and still with a sense of disbelief, that I am one of the lucky ones in more ways than one. Being told you are suspected of having cancer is bad enough. To be told in run up to Christmas was pretty terrifying.

Firstly, I know many of you have been there and it is awful and difficult to comprehend whenever it happens. But somehow seeing my notes with the words ‘suspected lung cancer’ and ‘urgent action’ plastered over them while everyone was in full festive flow was hard to take in.

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It was certainly hard to be jolly. Especially when the discovery of a lesion on my lung came out of the blue and discovered by accident. I didn’t have a cough. I have never wheezed even though I am ashamed to admit I was a smoker for most of my life, not a heavy smoker and only very mild cigarettes but there is no point in me writing this without being brutally honest to myself and to you.

I wish I hadn’t started as a teen when it seemed such a cool thing to do. But I have no excuse that I continued to smoke when most around me gave up out knowing full well the harm it could do me. Never inside and never around others but try as I might I couldn’t quite kick the habit completely. Stupid, stupid woman that I was.

The growth was discovered quite by accident. Still suffering the after effects of a kidney stone and pain from a very bad dose of shingles 18 months ago I went back to to my doctors fearing another stone was developing. I was sent for a couple of scans.

One was an ultra sound which came back clear, the other was for a CT scan. It wasn’t urgent and yet I was seen in less than three weeks which I thought was pretty good.

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The mobile scanner was in the car park at my local hospital. The staff were lovely and as I was there to rule out another kidney stone I didn’t think too much about it, until my doctor called with the results. No stone, but there was a new concern.

The scan of my abdomen had caught the bottom of my left lung where there appeared to be a one centimetre growth that wasn’t there a year ago. And here I have to praise not only the NHS but my local hospital in Huddersfield and St James in Leeds. My results were posted two days before Christmas yet on the 27th I was back for a further CT scan of both lungs and my upper body.

Having confirmed the lung issue was as worrying as it seemed, just three days later and on a Saturday I was fast tracked for a more detailed full body PET scan in Leeds which I was told would show up whether it was as they suspected cancerous.

By Friday January 5 the respiratory team had rung in person with the news that early indications were that it was not cancer, what it was they didn’t know but they wanted me to know the good news. This week I will have a full consultation as to what they think it might be. It appears I am, despite my foolishness as a former smoker, one of the lucky ones.

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And so I write this column with a sense of relief, a knowledge that it could have been my own fault had the news not been good. So let me analyse the treatment I have received. Three scans in three weeks, two urgent ones in four days and a GP’s referral which was activated within 24 hours. And you cannot get better than that.

And so I wanted to write and tell you that in my experience the NHS is far from broken. Is it creaking a little? Yes it certainly is and it is up to all of us to fight for it. Do the junior doctors deserve to be paid the £19 pounds an hour they are seeking? Yes of course they do. They are the experts, the consultants and innovators of tomorrow. And our lives are in their hands. Should 15 per cent of all GP appointments still be over the telephone post pandemic? No they should not.

I am going to be honest and tell you now I demanded a face to face appointment from a GP I had never met because I knew, and still know, something is not quite as it should be. And I wanted the person who was my first port of call to see I was a woman who knew my own body and was no hypochondriac and I feel that such an appointment should always in person especially when I had never met the doctor before.

But, after a little prodding, I have nothing but praise for the treatment I received. Quick, caring and efficient. And let us be honest here even if the news had not been as blinking marvellous as it now seems it is, I found myself in a system which worked and the treatments were there, if caught early, should it have been the worst possible outcome.

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And so I find myself a statistic. Someone who was referred by GP for a cancer diagnosis and was one of the lucky ones. I was seen at the busiest time of the year over three bank holidays, not once but three times for major scans, performed with sensitivity, care and using the latest technology available. And totally free of charge.

And fingers crossed the good news continues. I write not to gloat at my good fortune knowing that many readers will not have been so lucky either with diagnosis or even treatment but many of us are. And obviously I am relieved and more importantly grateful for the service, because yes it was a fine service I received from an NHS at the forefront of medical advances which treats us all as equals regardless of the ability to pay.

Of course it is far from perfect. Perhaps it can never receive every penny it needs but it certainly requires more thought from those who fund it not only in terms of pounds shillings and pence but also an acknowledgement of the determination and dedication of those who work in it to keep it going at all costs for the benefit of all.

For every brick back that is thrown their way they deserve a thousand bouquets. And our wholehearted support and gratitude.

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