To celebrate the NHS' 72nd anniversary on 5 July, Cosmopolitan writers are sharing what the NHS has meant to them.
Suitcase wobbling precariously behind me on the pavement, rucksack chafing at my back, I scrabbled around in my handbag to grab my phone before it rang off.
“Hi Amy! It’s Mum. How was your trip? I’m actually around the corner from your flat… as it happens. Can I pop in for a cuppa?”
The phone call from my mum jolted me immediately from the post-Bermuda breeze that had carried me all the way home from the holiday of a lifetime. There was something in the forced jollity of her voice. The complete randomness of the drop-in. The timing, as if she had asked my flatmate when my plane landed and timed it perfectly. A scared, hyper-alert animal awoke in my chest. Something was wrong. I just knew it.
Less than 15 minutes later, she was in my kitchen, busily making tea and asking questions about my trip. Eventually we sat down on the sofa, my legs tucked up under me, her hands nervously fluttering on her lap.
“I’ve got something to tell you and it’s not great news,” she said calmly, her years as a social worker present in steady calmness of her voice. “I had one of my annual scans and they found something. The cancer has returned.”
In an instant, I was back. Back on a different sofa entirely. The one in my old house, 18 years ago. The one where we had a mirror of this exact conversation. Back when I was 10, and my mum told me she had breast cancer for the first time. It was a moment suspended in time: on one side, complete childish innocence. On the other, the crushing realisation that parents were fallible human creatures. Creatures who, like everything else, could be taken from you.
My brain short-circuited as it tried to access a set of words and phrases I hadn’t used in a long time. Ones that I hoped I’d never have to use again.
“How advanced is it? Do you have to have chemo again? When are they operating?”
This time was worst than the last. The cancer was different, more aggressive. My mum was older, and her body had already undergone one round of chemo and two rounds of radiotherapy. We had done the hair loss, the foul-smelling dressings, the packets and packets of pills, the appointments where you wait, holding your breath for better news. Now we would have to do them all over again.
Over the sixth months that followed her diagnosis, there would be many constants for us. Our family, great friends, the depth of the relationship Mum and I shared… and one more. The constant care of the nurses and consultants at the Royal Free Hospital in North London.
The first time she was ill, I was a child, and therefore shielded from most of the medical side of her illness. This time I was 28. When she was in hospital, I took afternoons off work to visit. When she got shingles and couldn’t start chemo because her immune system was too battered, I brought potions and powders from health food shops across London to her door.
I listened as she spoke about how much better the NHS wigs were this time, compared to last, and about the chemo suite where kind and calm nurses would come in and check her infusion, while staff offered food she barely fancied and foot massages to help with drainage and circulation.
Chemotherapy is a poison, one that has helped keep millions of people (including my mum) alive for decades longer than they otherwise would have been. But its effects on the body are devastating. The hair loss is the one you know about, but there are others, and to witness them in those you love is heart-breaking.
It is like a game of Jenga; slowly but surely, bits of them are removed until the remainder teeters on a precarious edge. Loss of smell, a constant blood-like iron taste in the mouth, immune suppression meaning every cough or sniffle can be deadly, stomach cramps, constant nausea, crippling bone aches, skin and nails that turn paper-like to the touch. The nurses who administer this treatment are saving lives. But it must be torturous to watch, day in, day out, as people wilt in front of you like dehydrated plants under a scorching sun. Some will survive, some won’t. And yet they treat everyone with dignity, care and respect.
Today, my mum is doing well, largely thanks to the medical attention she continues to receive from the NHS. For the first few months of lockdown, as the nation rose up and clapped for our carers, I too stood on my small balcony, in the flat where six years ago, time had stood still for a second. Just two miles up the road was the Royal Free Hospital. Maybe, I thought, if I banged my pots and pans hard enough. If I shouted and cheered loud enough. If the wind was carrying my voice in just the right direction, they might hear me. They might know how truly, truly grateful I am for giving me my mum back.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised in this piece, head to Cancer Research for support and advice. I’d also love to hear from you about your own experiences, follow me on Instagram to get in touch.
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