‘I need to talk to you, girls.’
That’s what my boss said last Tuesday when she came into the office. Myself and my colleague both looked up at her and knew immediately what was coming. We knew for several reasons; not least of all because she’d been open and honest with us from the start. It probaby didn’t help that because of the way things happen where I work, we knew before she did.
‘I’ve got breast cancer.’
A stunned silence followed. Strange how, despite the fact we already knew this to be the case, it still came as a shock to hear it leave her mouth. She was in tears. Not, I suspect, over the diagnosis – but over the fact her husband was breaking his heart when she told him.
So what do you say to someone you not only respect, but care about when they give you this devastating bit of news? What’s the correct, socially acceptable response to this? How bizarre, your mind is saying, that you deal with hundreds of diagnosed cancer patients every year and you still have absolutely no idea what to say.
‘So I’m going to be off for a while. I don’t know how long.’
Neither do we. None of us will know that until the histology from the operation comes back. Will it be a case of hormone therapy or will she need radio/chemotherapy? We hope the former. God, do we hope the former.
‘I know you’ve got a huge support network, but you know where we are. For anything.’
It seemed to be the right thing to say. She squeezed my hand, gave a smile and headed off to tell the next person. My colleague and I stared at each other for a few moments and then we got on with our work. What else could we do? Gnash our teeth? Wail like mad Highlands widows?
Working in cancer services, the non-clinical side, desensitizes you to the harsh reality of the disease. We use the word ‘cancer’ several times an hour and as a consequence, I’ve found it easier to talk about it outside the confines of work. But it’s still a taboo word in society. The word ‘cancer’ still paints a terrifying picture of the grim reaper standing behind you, periodically looking at his watch. It’s not the case. Treatments have come along in leaps, bounds and occasionally skips to give even the most aggressive cancer a hard time keeping its hold on a victim. True, some are incurable. But for many cancer patients, the prognosis is much brighter than it was, even as recently as five years ago.
I work with cancer teams who surgically, oncologically and psychologically keep people alive for years after they would otherwise have been no more than memories of their nearest and dearest. I have massive respect for what they do. I know that I could never be a patient-facing worker. I would spend my entire life in tears. They all say that the word ‘cancer’ needs to be used more. It’s the fear of the unknown that makes it so difficult for people, they say.
I’ve been in this job for nearly three years and I can honestly say it’s been one of the best things ever for putting my own life into perspective. Throws my pathetic little whines into sharp relief. I can’t afford to buy that DVD I want? Tough. Wait until I can. I feel a bit sick this morning? Tough. Go to work. I am lucky in my life. I sit and read case notes and sometimes I cry. Because people deal with the most awful things and still come out the other side.
My boss had her operation last Thursday. Now we’re all in that grey place where we don’t know what will happen next. None of us want the worst case scenario. Not just because we can’t bear the thought of having to do even more work than we already do… but because we love her and care about what happens to her. She’s on our database, she’s one of our statistics, but she’s also someone we know – and that puts a whole new slant on it.
I’m sorry if this is a grim little entry. It’s been sitting in my head for a week and I wanted to eke it out.
I’m lucky. You probably are, too. Remember that.