Just sometimes it feels worthwhile

I work in a support role for a trust dedicated to research into breast cancer. A large part of my work involves entering patient data into a national breast cancer register. This is an important research and policy-making tool.

Massive advances have been made in the last 20 years thanks to research, in which the participation of breast cancer patients is a vital component, even if they do not benefit directly. Death rates from breast cancer have halved. If the cancer is detected through screening (i.e. the cancer is found earlier when it is smaller and much less invasive), there is a 98% chance that the patient will still be alive in five years. Other improvements include less drastic surgical procedures, better drug treatments and improved quality of life for people living with breast cancer.

These are the things to bear in mind when entering the data of a patient who does not have good outcomes. I have to take a break when I’ve entered one too many patients who have presented with metastatic breast cancer and can only be offered palliative treatment.

But this week I entered the data of a patient whose experience made my heart lift. At 94, she presented with a self-detected lump, which turned out to be a breast cancer. The clinicians were reluctant to refer her for surgery immediately, given her age and other medical issues. One does not get to 94 without at least some complicating factors! However, after they’d done several further tests, they offered her an excision (much less drastic than a mastectomy). She made an excellent recovery and five years later, after annual check-ups and screening, is cancer-free and has been discharged from the breast care service. On leaving after her final follow-up, she left a donation for the trust at the reception desk. A good outcome indeed!

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