Wondering if we have got it all wrong


A guest blog from a friend.  Its a long one, much longer than my usual, but worth a read. For health care staff listen carefully. For those who have got caught in the care system read to see helpful insights and perhaps feel less alone:

47207829 - blog or diary journal cover with text my story in handwritingThank you to Anne for inviting me to blog as a guest. I write this blog with more than a little encouragement from several people but in particular from Anne. Anne tells me my experience has changed me and there is value in sharing this change of understanding with others.  My blog is written to share my experience from my perspective, the intention is to support understanding and learning. Some of my experience did not match up to my expectations but it is not my intention to cause discomfort or harm to those involved I wish to create learning and change. I have made the decision to remain anonymous in order to maintain the anonymity of my service providers.

So here is my story. How does it feel to have your whole belief system questioned? No, not questioned, that’s way too mild a description – wiped out. Yes, wiped out. Everything I knew about myself, in particular my 28 years of dedication to the nursing profession, suddenly no longer served me. An unexpected cancer diagnosis turned my world upside down. I had a pretty standard life up to then; busy daughter, sister, wife, mum and nurse. I was proud of what I had achieved and felt successful in my career having moved into a more senior position.

At the outset of my career, in the acute setting, my work was aligned to the medical model. I was unaware of any other way. This approach influenced me not only professionally but also as a person; it resulted in me favouring scientific approaches and controlled interventions. This came to fruition through the delivery of my 2 children by caesarean section, both for legitimate medical reasons but inside I was hoping this would be the method of delivery.

Seven years into my career I moved into the community, working in a very different model. A model which sought to educate individuals and develop attitudes which enabled them to take responsibility for their own wellbeing. The focus changed from illness to health and overall wellbeing.  It was my first exposure to the term ‘holistic’.

My career unfolded to promote prevention and empowerment. I have been fortunate to work for much of my time with children and young people. For me, this has created unique opportunities for me to learn how to work in the context of other’s lives. To work to understand what can be the best for that young person in their current circumstances, to see beyond the “patient” and deliver what I considered to be holistic care.

Throughout my time in nursing I have been supported to learn and develop through a range of approaches. The most significant include being exposed to a range of models of health and well-being; working in partnership with colleagues from education. I have learnt about their culture being introduced to motivational interviewing techniques and the maximising independence agenda and participating in an intensive leadership fellowship where I gained an understanding of difference and learnt to value it as well as insight into system leadership. I value and have gained immensely from all opportunities to learn – by far my biggest learning has been through my cancer diagnosis.

Woman aloneEverything I expected a “patient” experience to be seemed absent from my pathway. I was in a place of terror, facing huge overwhelming fear. Facing my own mortality. Wanting to understand every detail. Wanting to question every action. All of a sudden the “patient” was more important than they had ever been. The “patient” was ME, me the daughter, sister, wife, mum and nurse. It felt like cancer was taking over, I was losing my identity. My whole being was disintegrating. I longed to feel the familiarity of my pre-cancer life, but it was not to be. I had a brief encounter with thoughts of suicide until I recognised that it was in fact death I was trying to run from. I desperately reached out to everyone I knew, relatives, colleagues, non NHS practitioners and friends, to whom I am extremely grateful. They have all helped me understand, process, express and work out what I needed to do. They have helped me to represent myself, gain self-belief and understand my self-worth. Ironically the bread and butter of my work with young people.

One of the huge gaps for me in the cancer pathway was/is emotional support. The journey is a very lonely one and the time available in the NHS to offer any emotional support is limited. I developed my own network. I accessed charitable support, luckily for me, one particular provision is commissioned through NHS funds in my area. In my experience The Haven Breast Cancer Charity and The Penny Brohn Centre fulfil some of needs left unaddressed through the cancer pathway. I started to build a team of therapists around me including non NHS practitioners. This was soon after I came to appreciate the NHS pathway only had the capacity to manage symptoms, deal with the lump and any roaming cells. My understanding of holistic was so much broader than this.  Holistic in a physical sense, holistic in an emotional and spiritual sense, holistic in a nutritional sense and holistic in the context of my whole life.

I am very grateful for aspects of the NHS pathway to help sort out what the problem was, and manage the symptoms, in most cases the staff did their very best to give me what the system deems as the right experience. It came as a surprise that this wasn’t what I wanted or needed. I wanted an individualised approach based on me and the system doesn’t easily allow for deviation from a standard. The targets don’t allow it. I now appreciate that targets create inflexibility which seems very ironic when the focus of NHS care is promoted as individualised.

47050307 - hospital corridor and doctor as a blurred defocused background

Some of the challenges/learning I have identified:

  • Having a strong belief in the NHS, being proud of my role and contributions and now feeling conflict with this.
  • Not being informed of any risks associated with any of the investigations it was assumed I would accept.
  • Waiting nearly 2 hours past my appointment time to go into the consultation to receive my results.
  • Being sat down immediately after becoming aware I had cancer to spend what seemed like an age having an anatomy and physiology lesson on the breast. My brain was in total shock and I struggled to concentrate. I sat behind a fixed mask behaving as I thought I should. I wanted to run, run and run and hug my children hard.
  • Following my results having to walk back towards all the patients in the waiting room waiting to go in. Feeling so vulnerable and everyone’s eyes focussing my way. I wished I could leave by the fire exit.
  • Being denied the opportunity to attend the discussion of my case at the multi disciplinary team meeting despite asking. “No decision about me without me”. Being told this was due to confidentiality and time. When I asked who would represent my concerns and expectations, being told the nurse would advocate on my behalf. Not understanding how she could do that when the final reports from investigations were being presented at the meeting and, therefore, I wouldn’t have seen them. I wasn’t sure what my thoughts were without hearing the options so I found it difficult to understand how she could represent me.
  • Being pressured to conform to the target driven time line set by the government. In fact being phoned and asked to attend a consultation with the nurse the same day (Friday) as she called. In response to this I asked if I could attend first thing on the Monday so my husband could be present. The response was that the nurse would have to check with the ‘tracking lady’ (who managed the targets) before agreeing to it, as I might be breaching ‘my timeline’!
  • Not ever hearing any words that gave positivity or hope in my NHS appointments. Feeling doomed.
  • Feeling that some of the different departments seem disconnected from my overall pathway, just a process to produce a report.
  • Being expected to have surgery without any pre-surgery consultation with the chap who holds the knife.
  • Receiving an automated text “don’t forget to attend your appt on….” At this point I wasn’t yet aware what my surgery would be, let alone when it would be, and this text turned out to be the reminder for my surgery.
  • Attending 2 different departments, both needing to insert needles into veins for different reasons. Wondering why this couldn’t all be done in one insertion to half the infection risk.
  • Being supported to develop enough self-worth to realise I was so important that I could take control. Up to that point I had gone with the flow and felt I had to do as I was told.
  • Gaining enough confidence to move provider service. My natural instinct is to be grateful for what you are given and not question it.
  • Being told vitamins and supplements are insignificant. And then recently learning that Public Health England now recommend one of them.
  • Researching information beyond NICE. Wanting to seek information from people who had lived this kind of experience. Understand it from the horse’s mouth not just the worker. You might like to check out the list below for just a few examples of the information I explored
  • 40977303 - illustration of the breast cancer ribbonDeveloping a realisation that my body is my own. And I have the right to decide what happens to it. I agreed to have a wide local excision of the lump.
  • Asking for copies of all my reports and results so I could process the information in line with my capacity to digest it.
  • Feeling completely exhausted with researching and processing information because I believe there is more to disease and wellness than drug based statistics.
  • Feeling intuitively that damaging my immune system through chemotherapy was not the right choice at this time for me. This being reinforced when I asked how much benefit going through chemo would add. I was told that the statistical prediction through the online tool was that chemo would give a 4.6% increased survival rate over 5 years. Wondering why we (the NHS) are prescribing such expensive and toxic courses of treatment based on such low improved outcomes.
  • Gaining an understanding that the impact of stress on the function of your body is key to any potential for recovery. Understanding the evidence in relation to links between emotional and physical wellbeing. Actively utilising strategies to minimise negative thoughts and stress.
  • Receiving letters from the consultants expressing concern at me not taking active treatment, further filling me with fear and stress.
  • An appreciation that a significant part of my contact with the NHS as “patient” creates me stress and anxiety from sitting in the waiting room with people clearly much worse off than myself, to the challenges I felt trying to represent myself in consultations. It is a relief to only have to attend once a year now.
  • Feeling like my contribution to the whole scenario was gate crashing my pathway.
  • Sensing an unintentional arrogance in relation to defining my care plan.
  • Sensing an unintentional arrogance in relation to believing the NHS team was the only valid contribution to my care.
  • 35336005 - health in the palm of your handHaving my “holistic” approach to my care unintentionally undermined.
  • Being bombarded with “think differently” messages in my role and continuing professional development. “Thinking differently” being seen as holding the potential to transform the NHS into something sustainable.
  • Having “question everything” engrained through your very being as part of your professional development. Being encouraged to question why systems operate the way they do, why care is presented as it is, whether we can do anything differently to improve efficiency, safety and/or experience.
  • Realising the extent of influence and bias within medical research. See Ben Goldacre http://www.badscience.net/about-dr-ben-goldacre/ . And presentation by Peter Wilmshirst. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=fLZ0sHOu8dE
  • Learning there is a commercial agenda that may not always be in the best interests of individuals.
  • Learning that some of the things I wanted to include in my wellbeing plan (that were being dismissed by my NHS team) are routinely included in other countries.
  • Learning that the Switzerland Mammogram Programme is being phased out. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1401875#t=article
  • Listening to the BBC radio 4 debate on breast screening http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b049828q
  • Being told your only method of monitoring is mammogram, when it only identified less than half the original tumour (as did MRI and USS). Appreciating the evidence that mammograms are not without risk, but being told there is no evidence they cause harm when I question having one.
  • Appreciating that no one method of monitoring/screening is 100% effective. Learning of many different forms of monitoring, most not acknowledged by the NHS.
  • Learning there is a Political agenda which may not always be in the best interests of individuals.
  • Learning the positive impact of exercise but being disappointed at it never being mentioned during my NHS contact. http://www.ncsi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Living-with-and-beyond-2013.pdf (page 9 second point down).
  • Being declined a less risky/damaging USS as follow up because it doesn’t fit with the NICE pathway.
  • Learning how old the NHS Cancer Act is. Considering when we produce academic work anything 3-5 years old is considered old unless highly significant. The Cancer Act is dated 1939.
  • Learning of chemo sensitivity testing for breast cancer. At a cost of £3k individuals can choose to have the sensitivity of their tumour to different chemotherapies tested. The outcome can show some chemotherapies to be more appropriate than others, in some cases it shows that chemotherapy adds no therapeutic value. As a patient I want to know this information to help me make a self-identified choice. I would prefer to avoid the physical and emotional trauma of chemo given a choice. The NHS claim to require cost savings and efficiencies as demand is out weighing capacity. As an NHS worker I want to know why we don’t utilise this test prior to prescribing chemotherapy, to save costs on administering when it may add no therapeutic value and in fact may cause harm.
  • Acknowledging a stark contrast in experience at NHS appointments and non-mainstream support. Gaining feelings of hope, positivity, human connection, control, progress, opportunities and being supported and growing as a whole person from the non-mainstream connections. Looking forward to these appointments which ranged from Reiki, Spiritual Healing, Homeopathy, Occupational Health Counselling, Nutritional Support, Chinese Medicine, energy healing, Yoga and Spiritual Work. All of which are entirely individualised and underpinned by building a relationship and connection with the therapist. This aligned to my values and expectations.
  • Gaining an experiential appreciation that chronic illness is very different from acute where often working with cause and effect supports achieving an excellent outcome. Chronic illness is so much more complex and cannot be effectively addressed with the same approach.
  • As parting words being told that “in my experience people who take an alternative route do not have good outcomes” without any clarification of what defines a good outcome. Feeling the treatment I had undergone was not worthy.
  • Appreciating the NHS team involved in my surgery. They did a fantastic job in relation to the aspects of my holistic plan that they had the skills, experience and capacity to deliver. They were respectful, kind and caring within the context of their training and pathways.
  • Recognising that the relationship with a practitioner is fundamental to achieving a positive outcome. I would increase the 6Cs to 8Cs https://www.england.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/6c-a5-leaflet.pdf . Continuity and connection are key to success.
  • HopeReinforcement of my belief that life is about art as well as science, process as well as product and quality as well as quantity.
  • Living out the words presented to me at the start of my leadership fellowship “anyone who is not me is different” and appreciating the impact that difference has on experience and outcome.
  • Wondering if we have got it all wrong?

So when, during my nurse training in 1986, I learnt that health was not merely the absence of disease little did I appreciate the significance this would hold for me. I continue to work through the conflict my experience has created. I am a keen ambassador of the NHS, particularly in acute and emergency care I feel we deliver outstanding outcomes. In relation to chronic illness though I feel we have much to learn and should open our hearts and minds to self-identified needs and working in partnership with a range of approaches which support living well, be they medical or alternative. Self-identified benefit is of equal importance to statistical outcomes when I am the patient.

I would like to thank each individual (of which there are too many to list) who has played a part in supporting me since my cancer diagnosis. I value every one of you for the unique part you play in my life.

41900135 - flower

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12 thoughts on “Wondering if we have got it all wrong

  1. Thank you for sharing. Nothing I think of saying seems worthy. Just to say I will continue to reflect on what you have shared, you will have an impact on how I think and seek to influence others.

  2. Ironically I spent Saturday with a nurse friend living her own cancer pathway. What surprised me was her energy take on whatever was being thrown in her way.

    This blog shows us exactly the dilemma we have as professionals believing the system is doing its best and the reality.

  3. Pretty terrifying read. But good to notice what could change. No system is ever going to be perfect, but I’m hopeful that in the future the NHS can rise to the challenge of coping well with long term conditions and diseases.
    Great post.

  4. Thank you Annie and your friend. This powerful blog reinforced / resolved / added to / explained many of the thoughts and challenges I experienced following a similar journey. But without being a healthcare professional. Not sure which is easier! Very important contribution to learning around the realities of ‘patient experience’. x

  5. What an excellent blog. Full of reflection and honesty. A brave woman who knew what to ask and how to find and use the data – so very frustrating that it wasn’t given openly and in a timely manner to her – and to all those who don’t know the questions to ask.

    I became quite angry reading about the arrogance of the MDT sharing the update with each other but not with her, then deciding FOR her what the next steps would be. Takes real strength and courage to go against their ‘decision’

    What is really sad and dispiriting to me after a career in the NHS is that she does not yet feel able to share her name with us. I do hope this comes in the future, because she deserves recognition as her story needs to be told widely. I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to have chosen this route 💐

    Thanks Anne for sharing her story and using your website for such an educational and awareness raising blog – like many others you’ve shared ✔️. I’ve downloaded it to read again and think about more deeply.

  6. As a cancer nurse for 28 years you have confirmed that my true learning has and will continue to be – from the patient- Thank you

  7. Wow that’s a truly amazing blog well done and thank you for being so open and honest .The fact is the ordinary layperson would probably just go along with whatever they were told by the (professionals) having neither the knowledge or courage to doubt them possibly accepting their way as the only way it certainly makes you think . I had a situation not long ago having to stick up for my mum in hospital when I had been told in no uncertain words that my mother was fine ” she’s had a shower this morning and has put a full face of make-up on and she’s ready to be collected ” said the ward sister only to get there and my mother was in extreme pain I insisted that she wasn’t going anywhere until seen again by the main consultant.I was made to feel like a true bad guy had threats of security guards removing me from the ward finally mum was seen again that same morning and diagnosed with severe pancreatitis and later septicaemia spending over 5 months in hospital thank goodness she survived . Keep strong and good luck with your fight much admiration .

  8. Such powerful learning which the health care professionals should learn. An amazing story. Thank you for sharing so much.

  9. Wondering if we have got it all wrong | Health ...

  10. The significance and impact of living with fear – anniecoops

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