Cancer services remain ‘superb’ and ‘quite remarkable’ despite impact of Covid
“Every member of staff was so invested in my care, understood my vulnerability and was so patient and kind,” says Paula, after breast cancer surgery during the pandemic.
Paula Sherriff has long campaigned for improvements in health services for women. During her time as MP for Dewsbury between 2015 and 2019, she was a member of the Health Select Committee and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women’s Health.
But the issue was brought into sharp focus, when Paula was diagnosed with serious health issues of her own.
“I’ve always been committed to breaking down stigmas around women’s health and raising awareness with both men and women about how to look after themselves and act on particular signs and symptoms,” said Paula.
”In most cases, it will be nothing serious but if you are concerned, it’s always best to seek help, get referred if necessary and receive the right treatment, whatever that may be.”
In February 2020, Paula took her own advice when she spotted changes in her breast after returning home from an International Women’s Day event, where she had been a guest speaker.
“I had previously been experiencing quite a few gynae problems, but I was largely doing well. However, I spotted something unusual at the top of my breast when I was in my underwear, and it just didn’t feel right to the touch,” said Paula. “It didn’t really present as a lump, it just felt different to the rest of the tissue. The following morning, I showered, felt it again and decided to visit my GP.”
Paula was then referred into secondary care services and received an appointment for 10 days later. This was just before the first national lockdown, but the impact of the pandemic and the requirements for infection control were already beginning to affect the way services were being delivered – although at that point, she was allowed to take a friend along with her. Paula received a mammogram and an ultrasound scan, both on the same day and each within 30 minutes of the other.
The radiographer then advised Paula that there was a strong chance it could be cancer and a biopsy was carried out – after which she was told bluntly by a doctor that it wasn’t a benign cyst. The diagnosis was shared with Paula more fully and sensitively by a specialist nurse in a private room, with her friend able to be present.
In May 2020, two weeks after her diagnosis and as the country was moving into lockdown, Paula was admitted to hospital for a mastectomy – much to her relief.
“I was aware that the cancer was actually more likely to kill me than Covid, and I was very appreciative of being able to have the surgery,” said Paula. “Staff were clearly taking things very seriously and going to great lengths to make patients as comfortable as possible, despite the barriers.
“Personally I felt the hospital had put everything in place to protect us as patients, but I was also mindful that it isn’t possible to completely remove risk and that I had my own responsibilities in terms of staying alert, taking care when using lifts, touch handrails, using bathrooms, washing my hands, and so on.”
There was, however, an inevitable impact on service delivery as a result of responding to the pandemic. Paula was unable to undergo reconstructive surgery at the same time as her mastectomy as it would require a longer stay in hospital, which wasn’t permitted at that time. She is now on a waiting list and has been advised she needs to lose weight ready for her operation.
Having been given a low risk of recurrence (seven per cent), Paula received a week-long intensive course of radiotherapy. She described the service in Leeds as ‘superb’ and ‘quite remarkable’. “Every member of staff was so invested in your personal care and the breast cancer nurses were so supportive, she said.
As well as expert clinical care, Paula was appreciative of the time and care they took to ‘be human’, to understand her vulnerability and to protect her modesty during sensitive elements of examination and treatment.
“I was given a telephone number to call, and let me say, I certainly made use of that number!!” said Paula. “They were patient, understanding and very rarely would they not be able to answer my questions.”
In August, Paula faced a further challenge when she felt a lump, in her right breast this time. She was referred again on a two-week wait pathway and underwent diagnostic tests within a fortnight. Fortunately, it turned out to be lumpy tissue, and not cancerous.
Although many charities are also having to amend the way they deliver their patient support at the time, with restrictions on the delivery of face to face support, Paula was able to access the services of Maggie’s in Leeds and encourages others to do the same and seek out what is still being provided during the pandemic.
Six months after her surgery, Paula is also keen to share her experiences of cancer treatment during lockdown, as well as the importance of people acting on any changes in their body that are unusual to them.
“The sooner you are seen and are on the radar of health services, the sooner you can get the advice and help you need,” she said. “Our wonderful NHS teams can only help you if you take the initiative and come forward,” she said.