De-stigmatising health check ups
I, like most guys, am not used to having my junk observed, stared at and probed/prodded. Those who are biologically female are recommended to get fairly regular smear tests, but those born male are not recommended to have anything looked at until they hit middle-age. For me this meant I was completely unprepared for what came next after finding a lump.
A little about me
I’m sort of an idiot. I leap before I look, often. I’ve found this to be a worthwhile way of achieving things to moderate success. However, as much a boon as it can be, it can also be a bad thing. Like, for example, diving off of the pier without first gauging the depth and almost breaking my neck, or hopping onto that rope swing without first checking the structural integrity of the branch seat, which resulted in a (very) broken arm. Or, my favourite, trying to pick up a golf ball as my younger friend was mid-swing, and subsequently getting smashed in the head with a golf club, leaving a dent in my skull. As I say…Idiot.
But in this respect, I’m very happy to say that leaping into getting checked for cancer was one of the more successful of those endeavours. However, the process itself was not straightforward or simple. It was downright awkward and throughout those multiple times of many people fiddling with my dangles to discover the malignancy of the lump nestled within, I considered giving up many times.
In fact, given my proclivity for “finding an easier way” (it’s part of my job, honest, guv) it would have been much more pleasant to just assume everything was fine down there and carry on with my life. I’m glad to say I didn’t though, and below is exactly what happened when I discovered the lump.
I’m writing it in the hope that if you, dear reader, ever find anything suspect anywhere on your body, that you get it checked out, regardless of how awkward you expect it to be.
Day 1 – Discovery (Thursday)
What the hell is that thing?! Yeh. I’ve never noticed that before. Maybe it’ll go away to tomorrow.
Day 2 – Calling my GP (Friday)
Nope. Still there. Shit. After much back and forth, I call the GP but I can’t get through. AskMyGP, which is a digital service to ask for GP time and which is open from 8am-801am is not helpful either. I try again in the afternoon, and thankfully they give me an appointment for 2 days time. Sunday. I’m told it’s a male doctor.
Day 3 – Worrying (Saturday)
I have 3 kids. They are clearly not going to grow up with a father now. Shit. I tell my wife today, and she is chill about it. (I later learn that she wasn’t chill at all) I thought about not telling her, because I didn’t want her to worry. Again, idiot, but I’m glad she knows, even if I still fear the worst.
Day 4 – First appointment (Sunday)
The surgery is in town, I’ve never been here before, and the receptionists are not helpful at all. The lady in front of me has already been told to go somewhere else. I rock up, and tell them I have an appointment with Dr SuchnSuch (not their real name). They say, ok, sit down. I sit down.
40 mins later: Michael Jackson…Man, I hate having my name called out in waiting rooms. Ok, here we go. Hi Doctor, Oh…you’re a woman. I was told you’d be a man. Oh well, no matter. So, I’ve found this lump…down there. And I’m worried.
Doctor S: Um. I can’t help. I need a chaperone before you take your pants off.
Me: Ok, let’s do that.
Doctor S: I’m afraid it’s a Sunday so there are no chaperones. So, let’s rebook you and get a male doctor while we’re at it.
The unhelpful receptionist tells us that we cannot rebook, because I am not from this surgery. Doctor S is stupefied, as am I. Apparently, the surgery can be fined for booking people ahead of the day. All bookings must be booked on a per-day basis. Wow.
Long story short, Doctor S finds a male doctor to chaperone, and they lead me to a room where I drop trousers and lie back. She finds the lump and drops a comment about it’s size. Now, I’m terrified.
Male doctor leaves and Doctor S takes me back to consultation room where we discuss the lump. A scan will reveal more she says, and if you book it now it may take a month to get seen, and then more time to get the results. My jaw hits the floor. 2 months!? Isn’t that a bad thing…to wait so long? That’s if you choose to go NHS, she says. If you go private it will be much quicker. But anyway here are some antibiotics and I’m sent on my way.
Day 5 – 11 – Antibiotics
I take the drugs, but nothing changes. A week passes, and now fear is my constant daily gremlin. Blessedly I had a super busy week with some traveling which was good at distracting me, but I was back and forth the whole time between “it’s probably fine” and “I’ll be dead this time next week”.
It’s worth mentioning here that as a patient with very little info to go on that my emotions played havoc with me. It was very unpleasant. Doctors approach things with a certain detachment for obvious reasons, but as a patient I do not feel, at this moment, looked after. But these are early days, maybe things will improve.
Day 5 – Calling my insurance company
This stage is unusual because I take a step away from NHS at this point and not everyone can do that. The NHS has done a lot for me in my checkered years, plaster casts, slings, head bandages and stitches…but the thing is, I work for a health insurance company and as such they cover me as part of my salary, and you can be damned sure that if there’s a chance I can get seen sooner, I’m going to take it. So I contact them.
Insurance nurse: Hello?
Me: Hi. Awkward question but what do I do if I have a lump?
This conversation continues for a bit, and she informs me that if the lump is a result of a previous surgery I won’t be covered. So, shit. I may have to fund this myself.
Me: I’m not a healthcare professional, I’m a UX Designer, so how am I supposed to know if it’s—
Insurance nurse: A scan will reveal all. Go and find a private hospital and book yourself in. Here’s a pre-authorisation code.
Me: A code? So you decide if I can get treatment?
Insurance nurse: No, just whether we pay for it or not.
Me: Ok, but that is probably the same thing.
Insurance nurse: …
Me: Can I book any private hospital?
The answer was yes. So I did. The hospital had an appointment for an ultrasound scan in two days time, and they apologised for the wait. No worries, I said, but I can’t make that date anyway.
Scan booked for Monday. Day 12.
Day 12 – Scan
I’m at the hospital. It’s 9am. Now what. There’s barely any parking! Last time I parked in a hospital I got fined £60 for leaving my car in a one of many perfectly available parking spaces. It happened to be a staff parking area, but I ignored all the signs because stress. So I leave the car on some mud and wander inside. I am Jack’s helpless resolve.
This hospital is so small…
Oh ffs. Here we go again.
The doctor leads me to a room barely 4 minutes after I’ve sat down, and we have some banter about getting your twig and berries out for people to stare at. She laughs, then introduces me to a ultrasound scanning doctor. It wasn’t his superpower sadly but rather his skillset. So once. more I drop trousers and lay back. Lady doctor tells me she won’t be watching, just working on her computer, and so she does, idly fiddling with the keyboard or playing solitaire. Scanning Doc scans my balls and I’m tempted to ask if it’s a boy or a girl. I don’t though.
He looks confused. He can’t find any lump. It’s bloody there, I tell him.
Nope. Nothing. I actually know why this might be, because I had looked it up beforehand. The ultrasound scanner only picks up on solid lumps. And incidentally those are pretty much the only ones you need to worry about. Ultrasound doc tells me not to worry and it’s not cancer. I can go home.
Are you sure, I say? At this point it sounds like I actually want cancer. I don’t. I just want to be as sure as possible.
Scanning Doc frowns. Of course, he says, you can trust me.
So I trust him, and I’m back in my car approximately 13 minutes after I got out of it, and saints be praised, I haven’t got a parking ticket.
Day 24 – Scan results
This bit took a long time. The scan results were supposed to be sent by the private hospital immediately to my GP, but they were not. I phoned my GP, and after finally getting through they said they had no results.
I had to email the private hospital after a week to remind them, and they apologise and send them through. It then took my GP about a week to find them, read them and confirm what Scanning Doc had said (via a bloody message on AskMyGP)
“Normal bilaterally”. I had to google it. I don’t have cancer. Scanning Doc knows his trade, I’ll give him that.
Throughout these awful proceedings I almost quit a bunch of times. The stress and fear over finding a lump is something I can’t understate, and as leap-before-look as I am, I still left every situation regretful and scared.
England is a busy place where the NHS is overworked and underfunded, meaning you are nothing more than a face with a problem. How can you possibly be more to a GP who is forced to work to breaking point? I am incredibly lucky that I have access to private healthcare, but it has its own caveats. What if it was cancer, proven to be related to some previous elective surgery? Then you are suddenly thousands of pounds in debt. The other option is take your chance with the NHS and face the longest wait times of a generation.
Regardless of finances, cancer, caught early can usually be treated. It doesn’t take a medical professional to know that, so if you ever find yourself in the position dear reader, and by the gods I hope you do not, get checked out as fast as you can. And don’t be afraid of it. I found the process clunky and unpleasant and there were many hoops to jump through, but the need for a real answer from a professional is FAR greater than any perceived embarrassment you may feel.
Look after yourself.