Dr Kathleen Thompson suspected something was wrong. She hesitated – surely not her? Finally, and reluctantly, she sought a diagnosis. It was indeed breast cancer.
Kathleen looks uses her experience to guide the reader through diagnosis and treatment, both when things go smoothly, and when they don’t.
Whether you are the patient, partner, family or friend this book will help you navigate your way through the maze you now find yourself in.
How long did you wait before you could write your story and was it painful to revisit that time in your life?
Whilst I was going through my cancer, it occurred to me that my experiences would make a fascinating story, and, as I struggled to make sense of things, I also recognised the huge need for a breast cancer guide. I made notes whilst going through my treatment and started writing soon afterwards. I needed to learn the art of good writing, so, I joined a creative writing course and, later, I was lucky to find an amazing mentor – Margaret Graham, best-selling author with Random House, who provided invaluable advice and guidance throughout my writing. The book took around four years in total – I wrote and rewrote it until I was satisfied that it would deliver what was needed. People who have encountered a cancer diagnosis, either personally, or as close friends or relatives, are in a state of shock. They need lots of information, but they can only absorb short simple messages. I achieved this by interweaving key information with my story, which also illustrated important points. Nearly all the chapters are intentionally short, and have a summary and further information suggestions at the end.
I wouldn’t say it was painful to revisit my experience. I was lucky to have a good outcome from treatment. Although there were some scary times during the treatment, they are behind me now.
What kept you going through the tough times?
Mainly the love and support of my family and good friends. Also there were some amazing doctors and nurses who gave me great confidence that I would get through the cancer.
I have a friend with cancer who is a nurse and I accompanied her on a visit to have a canula fitted. She was very critical of the staff if they didn’t take her blood properly and I can remember thinking how glad I was that I had not an ounce of medical knowledge. I did feel ignorance was bliss. Did you feel your medical knowledge was unhelpful at times?
A good question. Medical knowledge is a two-edged sword – sometimes it is hard when you know too much, and I understand your friend’s frustrations, however, overall I felt it was an important advantage to understand what was being done and why, and even to know the roles of the various medical staff. This knowledge is one of the things I wanted to share in my book – to help people recognise when their treatment was acceptable, and when they should be challenging things. I also wanted to give people the confidence and tools to question anything that didn’t seem right.
You have broken down the whole process into steps that everyone can understand which is just brilliant. I found it very easy to comprehend the complicated process that someone with breast cancer may go through. Did you find it difficult to break down the terminology? After all, you have sound medical knowledge even if not in the specific discipline.
Thank you. I’m delighted that you found it easy to understand. Making specialist medical parlance understandable is my passion. I tend to think in simple-terms so I don’t see the need to wrap things up in complicated words. I remember when I worked as a junior doctor on a surgical ward. I used to follow a lovely Welsh doctor around as he talked to people after their operations. He would sit down with the elderly patients, pat their hands and tell them in his lyrical accent ‘Don’t worry, the histology was normal’. I would bend down and whisper in their ear ‘ He means you don’t have cancer.’
What do you think are the three most important things you need to consider when you have been given your diagnosis?
Another important question – I would say the following:
Do you really understand your illness? If not, insist on an explanation, again and again until you do understand. Don’t feel embarrassed at making people repeat themselves, or taking their time. It is critical that you really understand. Cancer is complicated- there are many different types, even within breast cancer, and many different stages. Each one needs to be treated in a specific way and you need to be clear about all aspects of your particular cancer, and what the proposed treatment is and why.
Are you confident that you are getting the best treatment? If you have any doubts about anything relating to your treatment, you must ask. Don’t be embarrassed to challenge medical judgement – it is your body, and you are the one with the greatest investment in things being done correctly. If you are not getting the answers you want, ask for a second opinion, or put your concerns in writing.
Is there anything I need to do about my life-style to improve my chances of successful treatment. There are many reasons why people get cancer- some we can do something about, some we can’t. However, if we can help our own bodies fight the cancer, by eating healthily and avoiding things which are known to increase our propensity to cancer, this will give us the best chance of responding to treatment and of remaining well.
How can a friend best help someone they love with cancer?
Thank you so much Kathleen. I loved the analogy with the hairdresser. It perfectly illustrates the British reserve. It’s so important to be assertive but almost impossible when you haven’t had much practise. I admired your bravery and your reflection on what you would have done differently in the same circumstances. It will be helpful to so many.
Please, if you know of anyone recently diagnosed, going through treatment or you are diagnosed as having cancer yourself – read this book and keep it with you. It will throw light on a path to guide you as you navigate your treatment.