From Behind The Mask

By Jo Strickland, Radiotherapy Team Leader, South East London

Growing up in Felixstowe I never really worried about the small things in life. I’d hug my mum whenever I wanted, I’d wander into town and browse around the shops, I’d hang out with my friends whenever I could and I’d go to school for an education that would serve me well later in life. These were all simple things that I took for granted. Who knew how precious they would become?

At the moment life is very different for everyone. Communication with friends and family is largely via a phone or computer screen, shopping involves a queue even before reaching the checkout and children are denied the chance to learn among friends or take exams to validate the qualifications they are to be awarded. In addition holidays, weddings and parties have been cancelled or postponed. Social distancing is the new way of life and while many people now work from home many still don’t know if and when they will have a job to return to. No one can have been unaffected by the coronavirus pandemic.  

As a therapeutic radiographer I am a keyworker. I have continued to go to work every day to deliver vital radiotherapy treatment to patients with cancer. But it’s been a struggle. COVID-19’s impact is far reaching and every area of the NHS has had to adapt to a new way of working, not least cancer care. Where once there was a welcoming smile, a reassuring hand and the opportunity to sit and talk through problems and advice, there is now a mask, a glove, a telephone call and distance. These are all necessary measures introduced to protect staff and patients alike but they take away an element of the personalised care that is the pride of my profession. We still care, we always do, but it’s hard to convey that when you’re wearing an armour of PPE.

The pandemic has also seen cancer referral numbers fall to alarmingly low levels. I have often joked with patients that in an ideal world there’d be no one for me to treat. But that is because I wish no one had cancer, not because I want a quiet day at work. Quiet days in radiotherapy are always worrying and usually signify the calm before a storm of new patients who will fill our days beyond capacity and lengthen our waiting lists. COVID-19 brought with it one such calm as the message to stay home sunk in a little too well. All of a sudden, contacting a GP about worrying symptoms no longer seemed essential. Meanwhile doctors had to make unenviable choices as to whether to delay vital cancer treatment or instead ask patients to venture to hospital daily and risk coming into contact with a virus that could do far worse than the disease they were already fighting.

So now we await the subsequent storm. Those who have been delayed and those who have only now braved a call to their GP will all be welcomed into the world of radiotherapy. And those of us who greet them with a smile behind a mask, pray that they come with the intention of cure. The reality however is that weeks of lockdown will have pushed many onto a palliative pathway and the total number of deaths caused by this pandemic will eventually far outreach official government figures.

In the meantime, while the country tentatively eases itself out of lockdown, I hope that people do not forget the impact the pandemic has had on so many lives or that long after the number of new coronavirus diagnoses and deaths stop growing, many people will still be dealing with the fallout. And let it be a lesson to everybody not to take the small things for granted any more. I for one, will be Felixstowe-bound as soon as is permissible to give my mum a hug. 

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