Helen Martin: I have faith in NHS breast cancer care

Breast cancer treatment in Edinburgh is the best in the world, says Helen Martin (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
Breast cancer treatment in Edinburgh is the best in the world, says Helen Martin (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
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IT was 15 years ago when I had breast cancer, resulting in a mastectomy and reconstruction.

A mastectomy isn’t as drastic as it sounds. In fact, my now late brother-in-law (who was vice-president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, though not a breast surgeon) reassured me at the time: “You’ll be fine once it’s in the bucket!”

He was right. The tumour involved was what medics call oestrogen “sensitive”. Patients think of it more as a nasty wee oestrogen “muncher”. With no clear margin round it, the boob had to go.

Unfortunately, the Beast from the Oest, as I call it, is back. I’ve always had ludicrously high levels of oestrogen and I now have two munchers in my remaining breast tucking into the “banquet”.

Fortunately, here we have the screening centre in Ardmillan House and the Western General breast unit which is known world-wide as a centre of excellence.

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No-one diagnosed with breast cancer feels great or super-confident until they have reached the point where they are formally given clearance. Mammograms, ultra-sound and scans, along with the exceptional knowledge, care and experience of the unit’s surgeons and clinicians, set out the treatment route. It’s like walking through a scary forest path with dedicated protectors and supporters holding your hands and leading you back to the sunny clearing.

Back in 2003, I was immensely impressed with the Western’s unit. It’s the largest single integrated breast unit in the United Kingdom and although it’s a part of the NHS, it seems to have its own, independent identity, with loads of medical staff who stay working there for decades. There’s almost a family atmosphere of personal care, first name terms and patients surrounded by an aura of positivity, knowing they are in the best place possible, providing the best treatment available.

I didn’t think I could be even more impressed this time around. But I am. While the rest of the NHS is struggling, tests, diagnoses and treatments in the unit have been smoothly streamlined. First time around, I seem to recall the process to surgery took about two months in all. Now, from realising (thanks to a routine mammogram) something was amiss, to a provisional surgery date (dependant on an MRI scan) is taking just five weeks.

And this time, I may get away with a lumpectomy and radiotherapy rather than the bucket option.

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Oh, I know this all sounds optimistic. Deep down, like every woman (at least one in eight) who has breast cancer, doubt and fear inevitably lurk and prayer is constant.

But we have six “one-stop” consultant surgeons, led of course, by Professor Mike Dixon OBE. As well as surgical expertise and vast knowledge of all different types of the disease and constantly evolving treatments from drugs and therapies, they have another job. Saving life is their mission, but women’s (and men’s) self-esteem requires them to deliver aesthetic reconstructions which, in many other countries, have to be carried out by additional plastic surgeons.

Survival rates continue to improve. Five out of six women diagnosed today will be alive in five years’ time, though 80 women in Scotland die every month.

I certainly hope I beat the Beast from the Oest. But to any diagnosed “sisters”, stay positive – and take comfort in having the best breast unit in the world.