Breast cancer lesson number 61: Great care comes from people, not bricks and mortar

‘Never judge a book by its cover’ is a phrase that could easily apply to hospitals. With perfectly painted walls and shiny equipment often comes an expectation that the care will somehow be better. But, the truth is, when it comes to treatment, it’s the person administering it (and of course the treatment itself), and not the room in which it is administered, that really matters.

Don’t get me wrong. I smiled when I saw the comfortable chemo recliner chairs (although I never did work out how to put my feet up) and the bright cancer day unit suite with its great views. And, I’m not sure standing room only is the right look for a cancer clinic. But, when I think back over my time in hospitals over the years, it’s not the flashy equipment or the chipped paintwork I remember. It’s the people – and usually the ones that have made me smile.

It was my faith in the team treating me that made me put people before private cover after my initial diagnosis. My Breast Care Nurse admitted that the only difference between private and NHS treatment for cancer was the environment and not the speed at which things happened. In fact, if I had called in my cover, there would have been a delay while the diagnostic tests were redone and the diagnosis reconfirmed. I liked my team, I liked the way they treated me, and the blend of kindness and humour that worked well with my temperament. I wasn’t going to trade that in for a private room and artwork on the walls. Looking back now, I know I couldn’t have made a better decision.

It’s not often I leave hospital with a huge smile on my face (just doesn’t feel appropriate on most visits). Today, however, I did. Admittedly, this was, in part, due to giant carrier bag of drugs I had managed to secure for myself at my oncology appointment to help control the side effects from chemotherapy (never before have I been so excited about getting mouthwash on prescription). But, it was really down to the kindness and care shown by those around me – from the smiling barista at the café to the warm receptionist at the Cancer Day Unit.

I started the day with an early-morning reflexology and aromatherapy massage session courtesy of Dimbleby Cancer Care, a free service designed to offer support and care for people living with cancer (be that patients or family members). I don’t think I have ever started the working week by being coaxed into a state of relaxation and covered in a thin layer of lavender oil. It was amazing as both a source of escapism and a chance to chat to the lovely lady rubbing my feet and back. Instead of lying back and closing my eyes, I quizzed her on everything from her nursing past to her experiences and downloaded all my latest recommendations (from bold beanies to PICC line covers). The best part? It wasn’t the wonderful scent of the oil, the free bolster cushion (for extra PICC line protection in bed) or the fact that my back knots almost melted under the pressure. It was the moment at which she said she thought I was an extraordinary person. I’m not sure my Monday mornings will ever be as soothing again.

An hour later, I was sat in front of another nurse experiencing the easiest blood test of my life thanks to my trusty PICC line. Little did I know when I sat down for my ten-minute appointment that we’d cover everything from her singing ambitions and band to her love of children’s medicine and shift-based work. It was nice to feel like I was chatting to an individual with hopes and dreams rather than a lady in a blue dress with yet another syringe of saline solution.

Next stop, the oncologist. Three weeks ago, he told me he would be behind me 110%. And, true to his word, he was. The appointment was less about having a nice chat and more about him furnishing me with the contents of a small pharmacy. With extra Domperidone (bye bye nausea), Zoladex, Corsodyl and Difflam, plus soluble paracetamol and codeine (to experiment with as a mouth rinse because he’d seen it work before), I feel ready to tackle chemo 2. Even the oncology receptionist wanted to add in a mouth ulcer-related recommendation when I popped back to get the prescription adjusted a few moments later.

Finally, there was the smiling man at the pharmacy desk. He took great delight in both booking me in early (while I popped back to the clinic to amend my prescription) so I wouldn’t have to wait, and then walking me through my medical goodie bag. Service with a smile is often hard to find in the capital, which makes the experience even more satisfying.

I couldn’t describe the contents of the oncology consulting room, the massage seat, the pharmacy or the blood test cubicle in any great detail. That’s not because I’m not observant. It’s because, when the care is brilliant, there really is nothing else to see.

So, if you ever find yourself looking up at a tired hospital block, think not of the peeling paintwork, but of the people inside willing you on. For when you close the consulting room door one last time, it will be the kindness of those caring for you – rather than the chair they sat on – that will stay with you forever.