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Marisa outside surrounded by bluebells

I was working as a doctor during the coronavirus pandemic when I got diagnosed with breast cancer

Marisa, a doctor, was diagnosed with breast cancer in April. The diagnosis took a toll on her physical health, her mental wellbeing, and her work.

I went into overdrive

In February this year, I experienced spontaneous bleeding from my left nipple. I called my GP and she referred me to a breast clinic, where I proceeded to have a mammogram and biopsies.

Initially, I was mainly worried about having to cancel my afternoon clinic. I work as a doctor and I wasn’t expecting to stay at the breast clinic all day. As the day went on, however, I became more and more alarmed by how seriously they were taking it. The looks on everyone’s faces said that they thought I had cancer.

I went into overdrive. I couldn’t concentrate on work the next day, and logged on to the system to examine my very abnormal-looking mammogram (I’d already seen it the day before, so I wasn’t breaking the rules) and read up on radiological appearances of breast cancer and tried to self-diagnose.

I felt angry and anxious at the news

I diagnosed myself with invasive ductal carcinoma based on what I read. I wondered how much the NHS death in service would pay out if I were to die.

I finally got an official diagnosis of low-grade DCIS on 3rd April, four days after my 47th birthday. A mastectomy was recommended as there was a large area affected and that was the only way to ensure clear margins.

I was angry that I was going to lose my breast, my fitness, and my athletic figure. I was also told that there would be at least a three-month wait for surgery, which made me very anxious.

COVID-19 delayed my treatment

Because of coronavirus, I had no treatment at all for three months.

During that time, I sought a second opinion and transferred my care to another NHS Trust. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, it felt a bit less like being at work to go somewhere where I wasn’t known as a doctor. Secondly, I had low confidence in the pathology report, and I wanted to make sure that it really was DCIS.

I underwent further investigations at the new Trust and low-grade DCIS was confirmed at the beginning of May. An MRI scan also showed a couple of areas which were suspicious for invasive disease. At that point, the surgeon said he wanted to operate by the end of June.

The problem was I wanted to have a mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, and those services hadn’t been resumed yet. So, I waited.

I’d already been through so many struggles

During this period, my husband was going through job difficulties. Cancer just added to the strain.

We had also been through struggles with infertility, failed IVF and failed adoption a few years earlier, and the cancer diagnosis felt like somebody’s idea of a bad joke.

As time went on, I found it harder and harder to concentrate on work as I had my diagnosis hanging over me constantly. Eventually, I had to give up doing clinical work as I was afraid that I was no longer safe to treat patients.

It was awful having to tell my employer, ‘I have breast cancer. I need a mastectomy and at least six weeks sick leave afterwards, but I’m not sure when it’ll be. Carrying this cancer around with me is having a devastating effect on my psychological wellbeing. I am still at work as I don’t want to let you down, but I am really struggling.’

Everything felt so uncertain

Being diagnosed with cancer is one thing but being told that there is no immediate plan to resume surgery and that I might be waiting six months is another.

My husband struggled too, as he was worried I was going to die and felt so powerless to help me.

When I first broke the news to my family, my mum said, ‘we love you, you are strong, you will get through this’. My sister burst into tears. My other sister said she loved me. My sister-in-law swore. They’ve all been as supportive as you can be when you live apart.

I realised that my distress was normal

Everyone copes differently with cancer, but I found it really helped to talk about how I was feeling. I have been open with everyone about my diagnosis and the impact it’s having on me.

I started weekly counselling sessions, via video call, with Cancer Care, a local cancer charity which provides free counselling. They helped me realise that my psychological distress was normal and that I was coping far better than I thought I was.

I also had weekly meditations via video call with a friend from Australia who had had breast cancer herself and runs retreats for women with breast cancer. She was awesome and helped me process what was going on in my head.

Other things that helped me were cups of coffee with colleagues at work, going running or wild swimming, taking daily walks, doing watercolour painting and eating well.

I have learned to be kinder to myself

I finally had my mastectomy with immediate reconstruction on 1st July. At the time of writing, I am less than two weeks post-surgery – but so far, I feel really good.

I also recently found out that there was a small invasive ductal carcinoma after all, which illustrates the uncertainty that we have all been dealing with whilst trying to do the best thing for our patients during Covid. Had I not sought a second opinion, I wouldn’t have suspected the cancer was invasive and I might still be waiting for treatment.

During this whole process, I have slowed down, learned my natural rhythm and been far kinder to myself than I have in a long time. I have also started blogging which I absolutely love.

You can read more about Marisa’s experience and continued recovery on her blog.

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