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Same Sex Couples & Navigating the NHS
Treating Women and same sex couples
You could say, my partner and I have experienced more than our fair share of cancer treatments in the past 5 years. In 2015 my partner, Sue was diagnosed with stage 2 oestrogen receptive breast cancer and a year later I was diagnosed with stage 3c high grade ovarian cancer.
On the whole we have had excellent treatment and everybody has been very kind, but occasionally the medical profession, as with all professions, just missed the mark of getting it right.
Assumptions: Who are you?
On the day that Sue went for surgery I went with her to our local hospital. Initially we went to the wrong ward, or rather the ward number we had been given was incorrect. When we found the correct ward, Sue handed over her appointment letter at the nurses’ station.
The nurse took her appointment letter and looked at me, saying in a rather stern voice, “Who are you? Have you come for surgery too?”
“No”, I said, feeling a little taken aback, “I’ve come with my partner, Sue”.
Perhaps the ward was busy and the nurse may have been stressed by the sheer volume of patients. And perhaps I may have been feeling a little oversensitive. But my partner was about to have surgery for breast cancer… and I did feel a bit stung by her abruptness and her dismissal.
This was heightened later that day when Sue had been taken down for surgery and I was waiting in the cubicle bay. A nurse came around the ward offering cups of tea to the male partners of the women who had gone for surgery. But me… I was ‘overlooked’, by-passed, and felt ignored. Again, perhaps I was ‘imagining’ it, but I felt a certain coolness from the nursing staff.
Sue was in surgery quite a while and by the time she returned, most, if not all, of the other patients had returned and gone home. The porter wheeled Sue’s bed into the cubicle and the accompanying nurse promptly pulled the curtain around the bed in front of me, making me step backwards out of the way. I may be wrong, but I doubt she would have done this had I been Sue’s ‘husband’ or male partner. The sheer rudeness of the action, coupled with the hostility I felt as a lesbian partner of the patient remains with me and although the treatment was successful and Sue is now well, I feel that a ‘must do better’ comment on their ‘friends and family’ card would have been justifiable.
Vulnerability: A room full of men
This lack of understanding can also be said to be true of Sue’s experience of radiotherapy, when on her second visit to the radiotherapy suite, she was confronted by four men in attendance and no other females in the room. The vulnerability of exposing your breasts to total strangers, on top of the feeling of helplessness that comes with a cancer diagnosis, was not helped by the lack of understanding of how it must feel for a woman alone in a confined space, with four strange men and then to have to reveal your body in a compromising position. How difficult would it have been to explain that there would be no female medical staff available? Or that a male student would also be present during the examination? Sue could have either known what to expect, or been allowed to decline their presence.
Strangely, although the majority of nursing staff have always treated us with respect and professionalism, it has been primarily the nursing staff, who have failed to recognise our relationship, or who have appeared hostile. This said, consultants have had their moments too!
The first time I met my consultant was the day I also met my Macmillan nurse. My GP had given me a CA125 blood test, which had come back at 5,600 (normal range being under 35) and had referred me for a CT scan, which I had on Christmas Eve 2015.
I went into the office of the consultant alone, not really knowing what to expect. After looking at my abdomen, the consultant said, “next time you come, bring somebody with you’. I told him my partner was in the waiting area. “Please go and bring him in,” he said.
“She’s a woman,” I said as I left the room. What happened next still makes me smile and shake my head in equal measures.
Sue sat down on the chair next to me and the consultant wheeled his chair up close in front of her. “Susan,” he said. “On the outside, Valerie looks very healthy. But looks can be deceiving and on the inside she’s actually a very poorly woman.”
At this point, the Macmillan nurse, who he had brought into the room while I had gone to get Sue, pushed him off his seat and began to address me, handing me a pack of information about ovarian cancer.
My surgery and time in recovery were long, and Sue wasn’t kept informed. It’s difficult to say whether this was due to our sexuality, or whether this would have been the same had she been a man. It may just have been lack of staff and resources, but Sue was worried and the lack of information and empathy didn’t help. Keeping partners informed of what is happening would help everybody.
Gynae Surgery: Women’s anatomy
I love my surgeon, not in any kind of creepy way, just in the way that you do when somebody has saved your life. However, there have been times (not many), when he might have thought a little harder about what he was saying before he said it.
Immediately after surgery I was visited by my surgeon on a number of occasions. It made me feel important, like he really cared about his patients, which I believe he does. The first time he came to see me, I was still groggy from the anaesthetic. I wasn’t quite in the land of the living, but I knew who he was and understood what he was saying.
He told me that the surgery had gone well, but that it had been more difficult that he thought it was going to be. He lent forward and picked up two of the cardboard sick bowls from table over my bed. Holding them aloft, he proudly said, ‘both of your ovaries fit snuggly in to one of these each!”
“And do you think it was cancer?” I asked.
Looking at me as if I’d just fallen out of a tree, he said, ‘Oh yes”.
It wasn’t until sometime later that I wondered… if he’d been a surgeon working on testicular cancer, would he have used the same graphic display to describe the size of the tumours?
It’s not Steve, it’s Sue
Sue attended all of my appointments with me and on the whole, we were treated really well. My oncologists (I had many), always greeted us with a handshake and a smile. It was with surprise that when I read the letter from my oncologist to my GP it stated that I had attended the clinic that day, with my partner ‘Steve’.
Anybody who knows my partner would know that she couldn’t look less like a Steve if she tried.
I realise that this was probably a typing error made by an administrator, assuming that the oncologist had said Sue, but meant Steve. The error has given us quite a laugh over the years, but for some, this mistake could have been taken very badly indeed. Perhaps the equality training given to medical staff should be extended to administration staff, so that they don’t assume that the oncologist has made a mistake and check instead.
Amusingly, training seems to have an unusual effect on registrars trying to make a good impression.
After my treatment had finished in 2016, myself and my partner had a civil partnership. Having lived together for a number of years and not needing any more household goods, in place of gifts we asked guests to contribute towards a donation to Cancer Research Yorkshire. We were very pleased to have raised £1,000. The significance of our civil partnership was not lost on one registrar during a follow up clinic after treatment.
I had first met him after my first chemotherapy resulted in a bought of sickness and I’d ended up on a ward for 24 hours. I remember him vividly, as he examined me in front of a student doctor, but seemed to forget that I was in the room. This proved a common theme. On this occasion when we walked into the room, he walked towards me, hand outstretched, smile on his face. But he walked straight passed me and took Sue’s hand. “You must be Sue, congratulations on your civil partnership.”
I can appreciate that LGB equality training is important and I was impressed that he’d read my notes, but shouldn’t he have greeted me, the patient first?
Our experiences of being cancer patients and the partner of somebody going through cancer treatment have been both positive and not so positive. The NHS saved my life and I know that there has been a comprehensive roll out of equality training across the health sector. Hopefully, if I’m unfortunate enough to be on a ward in future, I too will be offered a cup of tea.
In 2015 I was employed by Bradford Council managing a small team working to improve the lives of victims of domestic violence. I spoke at conferences locally and nationally and represented the UK at a conference in Madrid, informing local authorities across Spain of how we had become a leading authority in providing services for victims of domestic violence. But almost overnight, my life changed, when in November 2015 I attended my GP with a persistent cough. Blood tests found that my CA125 was 5,600 (normal range is under 35). On Christmas Eve 2015, I had a CT scan which revealed a large mass on my left ovary. In February 2016, I had radical surgery, to remove 2 large tumours on my ovaries (20cm & 18cm), both of my fallopian tubes, my womb, several lymph nodes and my omentum. I was diagnosed with stage 3c high grade ovarian cancer.
Between March and May 2016, I had chemotherapy. I had a severe reaction to Taxol on my second session, which was alarming, but the nurses were amazing. I continued chemotherapy with just Carboplatin. Finishing treatment in June 2016, I was told that there was ‘no residual disease’. Thanks to my surgeon and my oncology team, I remain well and have not had a recurrence.
In October 2016, my partner and I had a civil partnership. I now spend my time involved with various cancer charities, attending the gym and working on my hobby of glass fusing.
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