Anna Donald: Tests

Test results can be nerve racking. They turn a complex stream of life into a binary event in which your fate seems to hang in the balance. I was especially nervous about my latest CT results. They would reveal whether the small cancers in my head had been zapped by recent whole brain radiation. Or not.

I don’t exactly know what ‘or not’ means, but the idea of blobs of breast growing in my brain (what is my breast doing in my head?!), impervious to radiation or drugs, sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie I’d rather not be in.

Then, a gift when I least expected it –  the radiology staff in a scanning unit which supplies Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital were so lovely – down to earth, prompt, optimistic – that the morning was transformed. My mother and husband had lunch, coffee, and waited calmly for the oncologist appointment. Although I didn’t have the nerve to look at the scans before seeing him – my scan reading is decidedly ropey and neuroanatomy was always something I was grateful other people were good at – I stopped being a jibbering wreck.

I am always grateful for this kind of cheerful professionalism in hospitals, where people are so busy and patients often so challenging. I encountered exactly this attentive kindness and competence in a wide range of staff in the NHS at University College Hospital and in my local surgery. It always impressed me; as a former Chief Executive I appreciate the work it takes to achieve. As a patient, let me assure any managerial readers that it is worth it. It takes all the awfulness out of potentially traumatic experiences.

And…the results were pretty good. The head was OK (yay!). So were the bones. The cancer had advanced a bit in my lungs – I have a cough – and more so in my liver, where two lumps of cancer had doubled in size. My oncologist has changed a hormone treatment rather than Go To Chemo and Do Not Pass Go. I’m not knowledgeable enough about the course of metastatic disease to know how to think about this decision. A relief? A reprieve? An opportunity? Maybe my oncologist can tell me. We all need metaphors to live by.