19 November 2020

James is a Matron in the NHS who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year.

This International Men's Day, he is urging men to get their symptoms checked.

I came to nursing when I was 30. I have spent most of my career working in intensive care and I am a Matron in operations now.

You go through all those things and then out of the blue I got a cancer diagnosis. I was newly into my Matron role and we were planning for a pandemic, the like of which the health service has never seen.

I found a lump in my neck. I remember it was just after Christmas.

There’s always that little dark bit. I’m telling myself it’s a cyst. I’m telling myself I’m getting on with it. But it’s a lump. I am dealing with a lump.

Don't put it off. Get checked.

The sooner you go the better the news. If it's a false alarm, it equals good news. Or an early diagnosis equals good news.

It was 5 April when I first went to the hospital. I had so many great interventions in that first day.

They were very ‘We’re not going to drag this out. We’re going to have an answer today as to what our concern is.’

It was a horrid day because I had some horrid news, but the way that I was dealt with was so efficient and so ‘we’re going to get this done for you’. From there it was how we’re going to approach treatment, which was done just as efficiently and I was just kept just as informed as to what the process was.

Even though I’m a nurse, cancer is not my speciality. I’ve come across enough of it in my career, but I’ve never worked in those treatment pathways. Once you get that cancer diagnosis it doesn’t really matter that you’re a healthcare professional.

I went through an aggressive regime of chemo and radiotherapy, which absolutely knocks you for six. It makes you feel like crap. Because it was in my throat I had real problems with eating and drinking. We were trying to avoid getting a feeding tube but once I started really feeling the side effects of treatment I got it the point where I couldn’t drink water or tolerate eating anything without either being sick or it being too painful. I had to get admitted where they put in a feeding tube in which saved my life.

Despite my treatment being at the height of the pandemic, it was really good. They changed my chemo regime so I went in three-weekly rather than weekly. The evidence was that because I am fit and healthy I would be able to tolerate it with as good, if not better, results from it.

The cancer diagnosis is a massive punch. It’s not my area of expertise as healthcare professional, so actually I had no idea of how it was going to be dealt with or treated or what was going to happen. They didn’t patronise me. I think sometimes there’s a risk of ‘you’re a nurse, you must know what’s going on,’ but I’m an ITU nurse, I know nothing about chemotherapy!

It has a massive ripple effect through your life and through the lives of all those who are around you - my wife, my children. It has a huge knock on effect to wellbeing, worries and I think you can’t underestimate that. It’s a life-changing diagnosis. It is a journey.

From that moment you find out you start walking down a path and you hope that your treatment is going to beat it. 

My loved ones have supported me and they have also been on their own journey. My daughters have had to see me absolutely exhausted and broken, with no energy to do anything. That’s really hard for them to see. They’ve been on their own journey at a weird time and even when there are little cracks in the lockdown, they still can’t go and do those things that might make them feel a bit better because I’m immunocompromised.

From walking in, to the processes, to the speed with which things happened, the way that I was dealt with at Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre was absolutely exceptional.

The fact that single one of the staff did their job with what I presume was a smile on their face – I couldn’t see because they were wearing a mask – but there was a smile in their eyes. It just made the whole thing so much more bearable.

I have benefitted from so many kind and competent professionals that I think anything that can be done to their ability to do what they do is really valid and important.

James is supporting Above & Beyond's Bristol Against Cancer campaign. Click here to find out more or make a donation.