My breast cancer journey: screening, diagnosis and treatment

Cancer. The word alone can bring about feelings of fear and anxiety. But ignoring it is the worst thing you can do. Thanks to ongoing developments in technology and expert medical care, cancer can be treated - as long as you come forward and get checked.

And there is support available at every step of the journey. As an integrated health system across north east London, we are working with all our partners to improve local cancer services at each stage. The work of the North East London Cancer Alliance reflects this through its three core programmes: Early Diagnosis, Diagnosis and Treatment, and Personalised Care.

What really helps to make a difference to services, is hearing directly from local patients about their experience. The more we hear from patients and residents, the more we can understand the challenges and barriers to accessing services, as well hearing about what is working well, so we can make sure we get things right.

Mary Flatley (pictured below), a patient and local resident, as well as a member of staff as Lead Cancer Nurse at Homerton Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, shares her story about her breast cancer journey.

The image is a profile picture of a lady wearing a navy blue patterned top

The importance of screening

Mary’s story starts during the pandemic, when she received a letter inviting her to a routine breast screening appointment. As a reminder, routine breast screening is free and available to anyone between the ages of 50 and 70 who has breasts, due to either naturally occurring oestrogen or oestrogen hormone therapy, and is registered with a GP.

Following a reminder letter, Mary booked her appointment in Stratford, Newham on Christmas Eve in 2021, with a plan to go Christmas shopping after her appointment. She understood how important it was to get checked, even though she had no symptoms, and she attended as planned.

Delivering the diagnosis

In January 2022, two weeks after her breast screening, she received a phone call from Barts Health checking that she was available for a follow-up appointment, which came as a bit of a surprise to her, as she hadn’t received any notification about her appointment.

Fortunately, she was able to attend and had an additional mammogram and ultrasound scan. It was there and then that the radiologist delivered the news to her and confirmed it was cancer.

Mary said “I went from being lead nurse for cancer to a breast cancer patient in 24 hours. However, getting the diagnosis there and then was the best thing for me, even if it wasn’t the news I wanted to hear. At least I knew what was going on so that something could be done about it.

“I didn’t have a lump or any other breast cancer symptoms, so it shows just how vital it was to go for my breast screening, otherwise it could have been a very different situation!”

Receiving treatment

Following her diagnosis, Mary’s journey continued with six months of chemotherapy where she experienced life on the other side as a patient, rather than as a nurse.

Mary said “As a nurse, I’m very aware of the pressures that NHS staff are under, so I wanted to make sure I was a low maintenance, and I always had a list prepared of things to talk through so that I wouldn’t take up too much time.

“That said, the oncologists at Barts Health were amazing and I never felt rushed. To have that time with an oncologist, as a cancer patient, is a wonderful feeling.”

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Mary recalls her first time going in for chemotherapy and her consent form had gone missing. She was sat in the waiting room for an hour and a half. Having to wait with lots of sick patients needing help and not being able to do anything about it as a healthcare professional was hard.

Mary said “Sitting waiting for a clinical appointment – and your results - makes you anxious. It got to a point when my blood pressure would shoot up. Anything that can be done to improve this experience for patients would be very well received.

“Another time, I was waiting for a telephone appointment. I was expecting it at a certain time, but no call came through and so my anxiety levels went up. It was so tough sat there waiting – and willing - for the phone to ring.”

“The personal touch makes such a difference. When I had to have further scans to see if the cancer had spread anywhere else, my Clinical Nurse Specialist rang me personally with the results, which I really appreciated.”

The journey continues

Mary’s treatment is ongoing, and she is keen to emphasise the point that, as a cancer patient, the journey doesn’t come to an end after your initial treatment, it’s a continuous process. It is important to understand the ongoing support available to help you through this, and to make sure you go to all follow-up appointments as required.

Mary says “I wouldn’t say I survived cancer, I survived my treatment. I can only really say I survived cancer if I die of something else! But I’m doing everything I need to and it’s worth it! I have to have an injection every six months for 3 years, and I’m taking another drug for another 10 years, but I am able to continue my passion at work as a cancer nurse and enjoy life beyond work with friends and family.”

What can we learn from Mary’s story?

In summary, Mary said “Overall, my cancer care was amazing. It was timely, efficient, competent, and safe. What would have made it even better would be if staff had had more time to add a personal touch, for example getting to know me and asking how I’m doing – and more importantly having the time to hear my answer.

“One example of getting it right was a wonderful surgical sister who wanted to make sure I was able, after surgical complications, to take my daughter to university as she knew how important that was to me. Now that is what I call personalised care!”

Five key things we can take away from Mary’s powerful story

Early diagnosis is key: even if you don’t have symptoms, it is essential to attend screening appointments. Please encourage family, friends, and colleagues to get checked.

Communications to patients: this is an area that can be improved across north east London, for example making sure patients are aware of the support services available such as prehab (getting you fit and healthy so you are in the best place for your treatment), and local services such as mental health, financial support and voluntary organisations which are able to offer support too.

Personalised care: making a patient feel welcome, relaxed and being treated as an individual is key. As a system, we need to look at ways in which we can support our workforce to deliver this standard of care.

The impact of waiting: understanding the anxiety this causes and the personal impact it has on the patient should really focus the efforts to reduce waiting times and support patients through these difficult moments.

Consistency of support: Mary didn’t receive a Holistic Needs Assessment or a Cancer Care Review – things which should be given to every cancer patient. There is work to be done to make sure every patient gets the same high-quality level of care, no matter who they are or where they live.

For more information

Find out more about the latest work of the North East London Cancer Alliance, visit our webpages.

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