Picture yourself in a waiting room. A doctor walks in with test results and utters the words: “I’m sorry it’s not good news it’s C…” You’re thinking Covid right? Oh boy.
When the ‘Rona struck our shores in March of last year it rapidly asserted itself as The Big C on everyone’s lips. And rightly so. However, almost a year on, and according to Cancer Research, with a mammoth backlog of 40,000 cancer cases, I think it’s time we brought the focus back to one of the most overlooked demographics during the pandemic. The cancer community.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer back in August of 2016, aged 31. I was accompanied by loved ones to every single appointment, scan, chemo and procedure. My treatment plan was mapped out before me like a terrific yet terrifying pathway of hope. Going through the cancer experience was hands down the most traumatic thing I’ve ever had to endure but in the wake of the Covid cancer crisis we now face, it feels like a very privileged one
What’s a few severe side effects and a face that resembles a maris piper when the recent alternative is delayed treatment or no plan at all.
Within weeks of the UK lockdown, I began receiving social media messages en masse. My cancer crew were distraught, telling me that treatments were being postponed left and right, surgeries were being delayed – or worse, cancelled altogether. Treatments and surgeries that were put in place to save and prolong lives.
It was heartbreaking to hear how helpless my community felt. How legitimately helpless they actually were.
Government messaging was clear. Stay home. Save lives. Protect the NHS. What they failed to mention was that our NHS was still open. That worrying and persistent symptoms could – and should – still be seen to by your GP. And, as a result, at the peak of the pandemic, Cancer Research estimated that cancer-related referrals were down by as much as 75%. Cancer screenings of every kind were supposed to continue when, in fact, we now know that very few local health organisations were able to offer them. Urgent referrals and screenings are key in catching cancers at an early stage, making them much more treatable and survival rates much higher: I should know.
Breast Cancer Now says that 95,000 fewer women were referred to breast cancer specialists between March and November 2020. Between March and September, Cancer Research UK estimates that as many as 3 million cervical and breast screenings were missed. It doesn’t take number crunching or scouring through statistics to understand that although not all of these cases will indeed be cancer, many many lives are destined to be lost.
Unfortunately, this is something I know all too well.
Back in July, I stood at the side of a street and watched as the coffin (pink and glittery, FYI) of my fabulous friend and fellow cancer crusader, Kelly Smith, edged towards its final place of rest. Kel was just 31 years old when she left us. She had been living with stage four bowel cancer and although we knew she would never be cured, her treatment was keeping her alive for longer, for more precious time with her family. For more memories to leave with her little five-year-old lad, Finn. Her cancelled cancer treatment at the beginning of lockdown is just one of many stories of lives cut short.
One very real example of the collateral damage cancer leaves in its wake
It isn’t just the loss of our loved ones in pandemic times that leaves gaping holes in our hearts. It’s also the grotesque loss of the final months, weeks, days of their lives. Personally, I feel that the way you leave this world is far more paramount than how you enter it. Leaving a world of deep connections you’ve lovingly curated during the course of her lifetime is something to be honoured wholeheartedly. Not to be reduced to a glimpse of a coffin by her nearest and dearest on the corner of a pavement.
Only two weeks after Kel died, my wonderful mate Saima took her leave too. Unlike Kelly, Saima’s treatment continued but was no longer working. She knew she wouldn’t see out lockdown – she annoyingly told me this often – and in some inexplicable act of strength had chosen to surrender to her reality. Despite the overwhelming gratitude that my soul sister Saima was in my life at all and that she shut her eyes eternally with loved ones at her side, I’m REALLY fucking angry
I’m livid that both my girls spent her final few days on this planet unable to hang out with or hug the loves of their lives. I’m raging that they never got to tick items off their bucket lists (or fuck-it lists, if you prefer). I’m vexed that this virus robbed them of proper goodbyes. But most of all, I’m beside myself that the visits I was due to make didn’t happen and that I’ll never see my girls again.
We’re so used to seeing statistics. I think it’s time we start seeing them for what they are: someone’s mother, brother, daughter, husband, aunty, friend and colleague. Following a diagnosis, cancer patients often become defined as simply that – someone who has, or has had, cancer. A hospital number. A statistic. A scar.
GIRLvsCANCER gives two fingers to our stories being used as trauma porn. It demeans the human and tells the world we are weak, worst case scenarios. I’m proud to support and celebrate the cancer community being seen for the multi-faceted individuals we are. The wonderful one in two.
Images: Instagram / Getty