Why I’m Struggling To Balance Life As Both A Junior Doctor & Cancer Patient

I’ve never seen an episode of the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy (my friend just messaged me saying if that’s the case then I need to download it IMMEDIATELY), but apparently in season 5 of the show Dr Izzie Stevens (that pretty blonde chick above) learns that she has stage IV malignant melanoma. On finding out her diagnosis she gently breaks her prognosis to her mum, “a 5% survival rate is bad, it’s really bad.” Fortunately for me, this episode was filmed back in 2009 and cancer treatment (immunotherapy in particular) has come a long way since then. When I was first diagnosed as stage 4 I didn’t ever think I’d reach NED (No Evidence of Disease) and subsequently have the chance to return to work. But, gratefully, this is the situation I now find myself in…

Life Before Medicine

After graduating with a Psychology degree over 10 years ago, I found myself working in advertising. The work wasn’t particularly inspiring (we worked primarily on pharmaceutical advertising) but the other staff were lovely, the office was colourful and open-plan, and we all went to the pub at lunchtime on a Friday. I worked on the client side (rather than the design team) and this inevitably involved a bit of schmoozing with clients and trying my best to keep everyone happy.

I remember the moment I started thinking about going back to university to study Medicine. We were working with a well-known company creating some posters for an upcoming conference and I was dealing with emails going back and forth about the size of the font for one particular poster. Yup, apparently in advertising font size is a big deal – and this means those emails can go on for days. Sure, no-one was going to die if the font was a little bigger or a little smaller, and yet this issue dragged on and on… I’m pretty sure it was sometime during that particular week that the seed was sown. I knew deep in my heart that I couldn’t carry on working in advertising. I needed to do more with my life; I wanted to help people who truly needed it – rather than these font-obsessed people I’d somehow found myself serving.

I’d always loved biology and learning about the human body and mind (hence the Psychology degree), so becoming a doctor seemed like the perfect career move. When I told my boss I was considering leaving he suggested I give it a bit more thought because he felt I could have a great career in advertising. His sister was also a paediatrician and he’d watched her becoming increasingly exhausted and stressed over the years due to working incredibly long, demanding hours and barely seeing her family.

Obviously I ignored his advice and handed in my notice…

Returning To Work Within The NHS

Fast forward 8 years and I’ve recently returned to work as a junior doctor in the NHS. I’ve only got 4 months left of my foundation jobs (as a doctor you have to complete 2 foundation years after graduating during which you work in various specialities) and it seemed crazy not to finish my FY2 given all the years of training I’d already done.

My CT scans have been clear for the past 7 months – and although that’s not a huge amount of time (and something sinister might well be revealed by my next scan), I felt I’d given myself enough bucket-list holidays (for now), and it was probably about time I re-entered the “real world” – where people actually get up in the morning and contribute to society. There was also still some small part of me that thought I might want to train as a GP and I needed to get this final 4 months signed off in order to progress onto the next stage of my training.

I always knew going back to work after 18 months (and whilst still on treatment) was going to be hard.  Fatigue has been the main side-effect of my drug and although it hasn’t bothered me too much up until now, I realise that’s probably because I haven’t been putting my body through treatment whilst also working. I’ve found heading back to work much tougher than I’d envisioned. The reality is that returning to work in a busy hospital is nothing like returning to an office job. Whenever I used to take a few weeks’ holiday at the advertising agency, I’d return back to the same office, the same staff, my own desk, and (let’s be honest) non-taxing work. To return as a junior doctor I’ve had to move 5 hours across the UK, stay in a spare room at a friend’s house, pay to have my name reinstated on the doctors register, pay out for insurance, start a specialty I’ve never done (whoever thought it was a good idea to put the cancer girl on a challenging, busy neurosurgery job where there are young patients with brain tumours!?), find my way around a ward I’ve never stepped foot on before, work alongside people I’ve never met, and try to remember how to attempt to save someone’s life when they suddenly become unconscious. And all this whilst trying to keep my exhausted, sleepy eyes open during a standard 10 hour shift.

It’s weird how the idea of sitting down at a familiar desk, in a friendly office, and sending emails back and forth about font size suddenly seems incredibly appealing… (I initially wrote the word “JOKE” here, but I’m honestly not sure whether I’m joking or not anymore).

The Reality Of Life As A Junior Doctor (For Me Anyway)

I know I’ve only been back at work for 2 weeks, so it might seem hasty to say this, but I really can’t see myself working as a doctor in the NHS beyond the next 4 months. I appreciate that my current level of exhaustion is probably a combination of the side-effect of my drug as well as the demanding job itself, but I’m pretty sure that even when I finish treatment in 6 months, I will likely be just as exhausted working for the NHS as I am now.

If I’m honest, I was hoping that the attention-grabbling headlines I’d seen about the state of the NHS during my 18 months off were an exaggeration, but sadly that’s not the case – if anything the media has downplayed the issue. Because from where I’m standing it’s evident that staff morale is at an all time low, there are huge rota gaps (this is when a department is unable to cover the working shift pattern due to a lack of staff), people are being overworked, rarely getting lunch breaks or finishing on time, and all whilst experiencing a pay freeze/decrease (this years 1% award is less than half of the current rate of inflation (2.3%) and the average national pay increase which is 2.2%). And it’s not just doctors that are struggling; the majority of NHS staff (nurses, paramedics, midwives etc) appear on the brink of burnout.

My Health = My Priority

Despite all of this, I know that the NHS is an incredible system – after all, I remain on the receiving end of it as a patient. However, the NHS desperately needs a long-term strategy to deal with the funding and staffing problems threatening the delivery of high-quality care. Obviously I’m no politician – and I don’t have the answers (except perhaps increasing tax for high earners or having a totally separate NHS tax) – but something has got to change and quickly.

Right now my health is my priority. I don’t want to be collapsing into bed at 8pm after a 10 hour day during which I was anxious and stressed, and didn’t even get the chance to step off the ward to have a have a cup of tea and some lunch. After the last few years, I now know only too well that our lives are sometimes destined to be much shorter than we had planned – so it’s important to enjoy our lives whilst we’re here. For me a huge factor in achieving a happy life involves ensuring that I work in a role that I’m passionate about, and one that enables me to achieve a sustainable work-life balance (I appreciate there are some people who absolutely love their jobs and would rather be there 24/7, but that just isn’t me.). It goes without saying that there are still amazing aspects to being a doctor, but right now I feel I’ve got to focus on looking after myself rather than other people. I’m not saying I’ll never return to working within the NHS but, for the time being, I think we may have to go our separate ways. One of my top priorities moving forward is to try and carve out a career in which I can still use my skills to help people but not at the expense of my own health.

I have the utmost admiration and respect for all of the NHS staff who keep battling on for the sake of their patients. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You are all bloody amazing 🙂

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