Beating bowel cancer together

Dr Philippa Kaye: There are times when we all use the skills from our jobs at home

Friday 26 March 2021

Dr Philippa Kaye, a GP, writes a weekly column in Woman magazine and is regularly seen on ITV show This Morning. She was 39 years old when she was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and here shares with us her experience of being both a patient and doctor.

Some people's jobs might be really useful, anything from being an electrician when the lights go out, to an accountant when it comes to doing a tax return. We have all used whatever learning we have over the last few months when it comes to home schooling! But perhaps not all occupations are as useful at home as others, I am not sure how useful being a train driver or coal miner is when it is 3am and the boiler breaks!

I am a GP and my medical skills have definitely been called into action at home on more than one occasion when the children have been unwell to varying degrees. But when I was diagnosed with bowel cancer, at age 39, suddenly I was both the customer and supplier, a patient and a doctor. You can never turn off your knowledge and my dual roles, of being both doctor and patient were often in conflict throughout my treatment.

There are some advantages to being a doctor undergoing cancer treatment: I understand medical language and actually am comforted by it, it meant I felt part of decisions and understood what was going on. I am not scared of hospitals as I know many people are; for me, they are places of safety where everyone works together with the sole aim of getting you better. But there are definite disadvantages too: when I didn't want to feel part of the decision making as the decisions felt too difficult; when I could not turn off my training which taught me to always look to the next steps, to what happens if this goes wrong or doesn't work. As a cancer patient I had to live in the present, in the right now as the future felt uncertain, but as a doctor I was taught to always look and plan ahead. The doctor part is trained to keep cool in a crisis, to keep working despite the emotional turmoil often around you, while the patient part of me was often simply frightened. There was conflict between the doctor and patient within me which added to the huge, complicated and often conflicting emotions that cancer brings.

But just as the doctor side influenced me, for good or bad, as a patient; so too has being a patient changed me as a doctor. I can pinpoint the moment that the change started, one night in ICU after my partial colectomy when I was having palpitations with an irregular and far too fast heart rate due to an imbalance of the salts in my blood. There were moments that night when even turning my head as I lay in the bed made my heart spin out of control and I wondered if I would die. An ICU doctor came in and sat on the bed, held my hand, looked me in the eye and said something like 'You're having a difficult time, aren't you?'

That was it for that moment, he didn't try to fix it or make it better, didn't automatically come up with a plan with meds, he just sat with me in my fear and acknowledged it. And in that moment, it was enough (yes, the meds came later!). He made me feel less alone, I was frightened and he saw that, he saw that my fear needed treating first.

That is what I can now do for patients, sit with them in their fear, discomfort and pain, whatever kind of pain that may be. To not instantly jump to try and fix it, again as we are trained to do as doctors with prescriptions, treatments and sometimes even just ourselves. But to say that I see how hard things are, that I see them persisting, that I see them.

Because we can do hard things, it is just easier to do them when we don't feel alone. It is why I published my diary of having bowel cancer called 'Doctors Get Cancer Too', to help others along their own journey feel that someone else understands them. It is what Bowel Cancer UK does, helps us feel not alone. You are not alone, we are here, let us help.

Doctors Get Cancer Too is the tender, moving, but ultimately hopeful account of a doctor's experience with cancer, in which Philippa shares the insights she gained not only through the diagnosis and treatment, but in surviving and thriving through cancer and beyond.

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