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The emotional shock of my breast cancer diagnosis hit harder than the physical one

Broadcast journalist and writer Sian Williams reflects on the exemplary care and kindness she received before and after her double mastectomy 

Broadcast journalist and writer Sian Williams reflects on the exemplary care and kindness she received before and after her double mastectomy 


Sian Williams: ‘This is one story I can’t distance myself from’
Picture: Alamy

Few of us go to an appointment with a doctor and expect a cancer diagnosis, especially when the letter calling you to London’s University College Hospital (UCH) says you may see the consultant ‘or someone from their team’.

‘I wasn't expecting “double mastectomy” and “DCIS”’

Ah, you think, someone from their team. Can’t be that important or they would have got hold of me immediately and called me in to see a specialist.

Sympathy

Alas, when I was taken into the room to meet the consultant and she said, ‘I’m afraid I have some bad news’, I didn’t hear anything more, at least nothing that made sense. I wasn’t expecting ‘double mastectomy’ and ‘DCIS’ (ductal carcinoma in situ).

Luckily, there was a breast cancer nurse with me. Shirley Day, who would spend the next year holding my hand, literally and metaphorically, looked at my startled face with kindness and sympathy.

‘I was never short of hugs from Shirley when I felt vulnerable and fragile’

I’d been writing notes as soon as the consultant surgeon told me it was serious. I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and when someone says something newsworthy, you whip out a notebook and pen. But this is one story I can’t distance myself from. It’s my story and it had started to hurt.

Shirley took me, shell-shocked, to her room. There were to be further scans, people to see, work to inform, deadlines missed, a husband to call.

Holding back sobs

Shirley passed me the phone and when Paul picked up, I gulped. No words. I handed the receiver to Shirley, holding back sobs.

‘Sian’s had rather a shock, Paul,’ Shirley started. ‘She’s just been told she has breast cancer and will need a double mastectomy soon. Can you come in and join her?’

And so it began.   

‘I know having had a mother who was an intensive care nurse and a grandmother who was a nursing sister how the staff are doing their very best in trying circumstances’

The treatment in hospital was exemplary. The mastectomy was as smooth as these things can be, and the care was kind and ever-present. I was never short of hugs from Shirley when I felt vulnerable and fragile. She was the one who laughed with me when we first looked at stick-on latex nipples and who eventually tattooed me some new ones.

Absurdity of it all

She’s left UCH now, but there are other nurses just as patient and supportive who understand that sometimes it’s okay to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

It can be hard and the NHS system can be frustrating. But I know all too well, having had a mother who was an intensive care nurse and a grandmother who was a nursing sister, how the staff are doing their very best in trying circumstances.

Shouting at them because you’re still hanging around for a change of dressings is not fair or helpful.

‘Time is short and demands are high, but it’s the tiny acts of kindness that matter’

I’m extremely lucky – my cancer was treatable. I turned down radiotherapy on my oncologist’s advice and am now living with three-monthly checks. And I feel good. The support of a psychologist in the first few months was invaluable. I didn’t think I needed it, but the emotional shock hit harder than the physical one and took a while to show.

What was most helpful from a nursing point of view? Being clear about what’s happening and explaining the inexplicable. Holding your hand when you’re scared. Making sure you eat. Regulating visitors when you’re tired. In short, what my mum used to call ‘bedside manner.’

Lowest point

Time is short and demands are high, but it’s the tiny acts of kindness that matter. You are dealing with people at what is perhaps the lowest point of their life.

They will remember the nurses who talked over them or brought a bad day to your bed. Equally they will remember those who held their hand, offered a kind word, tattooed their nipples.

You can make the biggest difference and you can be extraordinary.

Thank you. 

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