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Antonia Dean: breast cancer clinical nurse specialist

Antonia Dean, 33, is a clinical nurse specialist for Breast Cancer Care’s helpline. She lives in Hertfordshire with her husband William Gore, deputy managing editor of the Evening Standard and Independent, and their two-year-old daughter, Beatrix.

"When we got married, I made a pact with my husband that if I took his name, he would make me a cup of tea every morning for the rest of our lives. And even though I’ve kept my maiden name for work, so far, he’s held up his side of the bargain, so I’m greeted by a fresh cup as soon as I wake up at 6am. I only work in the Breast Cancer Care office part-time, so I’ll make the effort to wear something smart or pretty on working days, usually a tailored dress or skirt and blouse. I leave my curly hair to dry on its own (no-one’s allowed to touch it in the morning, not even Beatrix), grab a quick bowl of cereal and rush out of the house at 7am.

I get the train and Tube to my office in Southwark. It’s a long commute – about an hour and a half – so I’ll spend the time catching up on academic research and medical journals to make sure I know all the up-to-date information. The first thing I do when I get into the office is make another cup of tea; then we’ll have a meeting about anything important that we need to make the team aware of, such as news stories or the latest research, or perhaps a caller who might ring the helpline again and we feel it would be better if the team were aware of their particular case. Then we wait for the phones to ring, which they never fail to do.

The helpline is designed to provide support, information and guidance to anyone affected by breast cancer, including relatives of those who have been diagnosed, so calls can be all sorts, from a woman wanting to know if she can wear a certain bra after breast cancer surgery, to a brother wanting to know more about his sister’s condition. Sometimes, you’ll pick up the phone, say, “Hello, Breast Cancer Care helpline,” and all you’ll hear at the end of the line is someone crying. The instinct is to reassure that person, and tell them that everything is going to be ok, but that isn’t always the right thing to do. We can give people information and offer the space to talk through their decisions, but often we can’t tell the person at the end of the line what they so desperately want to hear.

We’re a small team, usually it’ll be four of us working in the office at one time, and we get about 60 calls a day. These can range from five minutes to a couple of hours, there’s no limit to how long we can be on the phone. The hardest part of the job for me is when a caller is close to my age and situation. I spoke to a woman the other day who had secondary (incurable) breast cancer. She’d had a lot of different treatments and some things were no longer working for her. So she was thinking about putting together a box of memories for her child to look through, at the big points in her life, like when she passed her driving test or got married. While normally it’s quite easy for me to separate my emotions from work, I got quite upset. It happens to the whole team occasionally and when it does, we’ll just switch off our phones for a few minutes and take a walk to clear our heads.

I have a relatively short working day – 8.45am to 3pm – so for lunch I’ll just a grab a sandwich and eat it at my desk. At 3pm I’ll leave to pick up Beatrix from nursery, as it takes me an hour and a half to get home. My husband usually gets back quite late so once I’ve got Beatrix off to sleep, I’ll start cooking at about 7.30pm. If I’ve had a particularly stressful or emotional day, I’ll turn on the radio, pour myself a glass of wine and cook something relatively simple, like pasta; it’s very contemplative.

After dinner we’ll watch something trashy on the telly. At the moment we’re addicted to The Great British Bake Off. We’ve got really bad taste in television but I just love that sort of escapism. I spend a lot of my time at work thinking pretty hard, so I like to stop as soon as I get home.

I always get tired during the week so I’ll go to bed at about 10pm. I’m a bad sleeper so I rely on a hypnosis CD by Paul Mckenna to send me off. Much to my husband’s dismay!"