Tag Archives: Breast cancer

THE IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM – A.K.A BEDLAM

In normal times the two huge 15 inch naval guns in front of the portico would have been swarming with children.

This week we changed our walk from the Victoria Embankment to the grounds around the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth Road. It was a lovely spring day, the roses, edging the lawn outside, in full bloom.

The actual building was constructed as the Bethlem Royal Hospital for the Insane in St George’s Fields, moving there from Bridewell and then Moorfields in 1828. Probably from as early as 1598, visitors were allowed to come and laugh and poke at the poor inmates. Known as ‘Bedlam’, it was a popular stop on the London tourist trail and a source of income for the hospital and staff. When the asylum moved to Beckenham in 1936, the Imperial War Museum transferred to Lambeth from the Imperial Institute in South Kensington..

I first saw the Imperial War Museum from my room in the clinic opposite, on a snowy evening in February 1990. Though still attached to various tubes after surgery for breast cancer, I was able to walk around and look out of the window. The snow was no longer falling, but it lay thick on the windowsill, glistening under the starlit sky. The elegant snow-covered Imperial War Museum across the road, with its tall cupola looked like a fairy castle in the moonlight.

I needed cheering up. As a consultant pathologist, who had worked in a cancer hospital for 4 years, I had carried out numerous autopsies on women with breast cancer. Virtually all the women I encountered with breast cancer had died of the disease. When I lectured on the subject, I pointed out how good the prognosis for breast cancer was, but I still thought it would prove fatal for me. It didn’t – and that was 30 years ago. Now the outlook for patients with breast cancer is better than ever.

I can’t decide whether it is better or worse to be in the ‘trade’ if you are a doctor and have a life-threatening disease. Of course, the surgeon, the anaesthetist and the radiotherapist were all friends as well as colleagues. I could stop the breast surgeon in the corridor and ask for a quick word about the hard lump I found while having a shower. But it also meant that I was well aware of the worst possible outcomes and because I was a doctor I felt I had to be extra brave, not make a fuss or ‘come it’.

Although I had long since retired, when I was admitted with a near-fatal heart attack in 2016, I was treated more like a colleague than a non-medical patient, who might not understand the medical terms and find being in a hospital frightening. For me, a hospital is almost home from home and the antiseptic smell is reassuring rather than threatening.

Lots more stories like this in my memoir ‘‘Woman in White Coat’. Buy it on Kindle at £2.99 or as a paperback on Amazon at £9.99 http://bit.ly/Woman_in_a_White_Coat

Woman in a White Coat

Why I set off Airport Alarms

My right hip replacement
My right hip replacement

It happens every time as I try to leave the country. As I go through security I set off the alarm. It’s that enormous piece of metal in my right femur that does it. Then I  have to be patted down by a grim-faced female security guard. I suppose they’re not allowed to smile at a suspected terrorist, though they are helpful and all smiles once I’ve been frisked. I’ve thought of taking a doctor’s letter or my X-ray but I suppose they’d be discounted, since I couldn’t prove they related to me.

My daughter Louise was expecting her second baby any day, so I had flown to Spain to help look after her family. Instead I spent 10 days in Hopital San Dios on the hillside above San Sebastian. I had to get special permission from the surgeon to slip out and see my new grandson.

It was vanity, sheer vanity. I’d missed out on Doc Marten’s when they were all the rage and when I saw the thick-soled boots in the Ecco shop I couldn’t resist them. I should have given them to Oxfam after I tripped hurrying to get to the Post Office before it closed. That time I’d only skinned the palms of my hands and torn a hole in my jeans. When I tripped crossing the road in San Sebastian, I broke my hip. I had a total replacement under an epidural anaesthetic.

There was no nonsense about being woken at six in the morning as I would have been in an English hospital. Food seemed to arrive every couple of hours. It started with coffee and croissants at 8am; then mid-morning coffee and biscuits, a delicious three course lunch, a mid-afternoon snack, an equally delicious three course dinner and, of course, a snack before bedtime. The nurses worried that I didn’t eat enough but I just couldn’t eat it all. I worried I’d never be able to lose the weight I must have put on.

I was worried that the bone had fractured though a site of secondary spread from my breast cancer of 10 years before but it was osteoporosis and Anno Domini.

From my memoir Woman in a White Coat