Mandy Meeks was diagnosed with breast cancer three weeks before starting a degree in nursing at Manchester University. After undergoing treatment at The Christie hospital she made a promise to return and work as a nurse at the very same place - and six years later she achieved her ambition. Mandy writes exclusively for PRN about her experience of survivorship, the challenges and rewards of nursing cancer patients after having been a patient herself, and her hopes for the future.
I'm a chemotherapy nurse at The Christie hospital in Manchester, one of the leading cancer centres in Europe. I’ve been six months in post and I’m starting to feel like I know what I'm doing.
The unique thing about this job for me is that I had chemotherapy treatment there almost six years ago when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 36. I had just moved to Manchester three weeks before to start my nurses training at Manchester University when I discovered a lump in my right breast. My world fell apart and within two weeks of diagnosis I was walking into the hospital to start chemotherapy feeling terrified and very depressed. I had a gruelling six months of chemotherapy, mastectomy and finally three weeks of radiotherapy and at times it brought me to my knees; I certainly had times where I wanted to give up.
The Christie made it easier to cope with all the services they offered including the support from my breast care nurse, the psychology department, the wig room, complimentary services and various other resources from an extensive information centre. My oncology team were fantastic and always had time to listen to my fears and endless questions. As much as I hated having to go for chemotherapy I had a sense of being well looked after and in ‘safe hands’. I vowed to go back and work there after receiving such excellent care. Having personally experienced these services it is easy for me to signpost them to my patients now and convince them of how beneficial they are.
My first day in the new job was daunting as I walked into the place that I had been through so much in. I wondered if I had done the right thing and if I could handle it. The first few weeks were hard; I had to redo all my skills and get signed off as I had moved from another Trust. This meant other nurses had to always watch me cannulate and do assessments of patients which I found nerve-wracking. I went in thinking I would have bundles of confidence with patients because I had been through the same things as them but it didn’t seem to be the case. I was almost at a loss for words because I was too nervous about getting things wrong and so careful because I knew I was administering toxic drugs that patients can sometimes react too. It threw me completely, and in some ways I felt I couldn’t do it which made me feel inadequate as a nurse. As the weeks went on I grew in confidence and began to relax a little as I started to feel like I knew what I was doing. Conversations flowed more easily with my patients and as I started to see the same patients more often relationships started to form.
Six months on and I feel much more confident in my job and now feel like I can give advice to patients especially concerning dealing with side effects. I don’t always reveal that I have been through a similar experience as it’s not always needed or appropriate. However, my best times are when I feel that revealing I have experienced cancer really helps the nervous or upset patient, especially when they are there for their first time. They all seem so much braver than I was - I was in bits, so I have a lot of admiration for them. There are also, inevitably, delays for patients which is frustrating for them. The delays now are a lot less compared to six years ago but I can definitely empathise with them on this point. I find that if you explain why there has been a delay, patients feel more settled and are willing to wait a bit more if necessary. I love my work and my colleagues - we are a strong and dedicated team and we certainly hear many positive things from our patients
As for the future, well, after my experience the phrase, ‘life is short’, constantly goes through my mind, which can be exhausting on a day to day basis but it does make you consider what are the most important things in your life. My patients all seem to agree that family, friends and doing all the things you always wanted to do are much more important now than material things and worrying about the small stuff. I do worry the cancer will return and have scares every few months but even though that’s really hard at times it also fuels my desire to find happiness wherever I can in my life. Things that make me happy are spending time with my family, especially my three beautiful nieces as I can no longer have children of my own due to the chemotherapy. I love cycling which I took up after treatment to be more healthy and travelling around the globe.
I’m always looking for a new adventure because life itself is an adventure that needs to be grabbed with both hands.