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My NHS Story: The care I received always felt very personal

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My NHS Story: The care I received always felt very personal

In response to our recent appeal for stories to help us celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service, we were overwhelmed with amazing examples. Here's one of these remarkable stories of the NHS in action.

When Gareth Sloane found a lump on his leg in August 2016 he thought it was probably nothing, after all, he had no symptoms of anything serious and he was just 24.

His wife convinced the Graduate Mechanical Engineer to go to his GP, close to where he worked in Runcorn, Cheshire, but could never anticipated the journey he was about to embark on. Tests revealed that Gareth had a rare form of Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that only around five people are diagnosed with every year in the UK. Gareth was forced to endure five bouts of crippling chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, radiotherapy, and innumerous nights in hospital.

Thankfully Gareth is now in remission thanks to his own determination, his supportive family and the sterling work of dozens of NHS professionals who kept him strong in his darkest moments.

“When I first found a lump on the inside of my left leg, my wife told me to go to the doctors, even though I wasn’t sure if I needed to. I told the GP I felt fine but looking back I was probably a bit tired.

The GP told me that he was retiring in two weeks, so I would most likely be his final patient and he would try to get the gears moving on my care immediately. He marked me as a cancer patient so I would undergo tests quickly. When I first heard the word ‘cancer’ it unnerved me, but it was great to see that they did not want to waste time.

This GP became one of the many heroes of my story because had he not treated me as a cancer patient from the start then perhaps I would not have been diagnosed so quickly.

An ultrasound test and a CT scan revealed that I had a swollen lymph node, but it was not clear why, so a split biopsy was conducted on 21 September. The result that came back was quite a shock. One said that I had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and the other stated that it was Lymphoma, but just did not know what type.

This may sound strange but throughout the whole process I was never worried or scared. My wife and I felt like it was a train you had to get on, but you knew that you would be getting off. In fact we left the hospital laughing about it. We joked that I couldn’t just get a normal cancer and that it just had to be more complicated!

My care was moved back to the north east, which was really helpful and in November my cancer treatment began, I had been married for just 15 months.

We were being led by a Consultant Haematologist at the Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle who was very thorough and wasted no time sorting out a treatment regime. She re-ran the tests and they found that I had a high grade lymphoma with features intermediate between non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in three places on my left side and upper leg.

I chose not to research the type of cancer, we were just told it was very rare and that only five cases a year were found in the UK. I was told I needed very strong chemotherapy as there were two facets to my cancer and in total I had five chemotherapy treatments.

The doctors said I was young, I could handle the treatment, which I was relieved to hear, but nothing could prepare me for the toll it would take on my body. The chemotherapy affected all parts of my life, some days I couldn’t sit up and walk, or even talk, and even everyday tasks like going to the bathroom were very tiring. I would leave the hospital feeling drained, weak and in a wheelchair. Within three weeks my hair had fallen out and my skin became grey.

Losing my hair never bothered me, although it shocked some of my family. And when I was well enough to leave the house people would sometimes say that I didn’t look well, even though I thought I was having a good day!

My wife acted as my full-time carer, helping me in her lunch breaks and before and after work, even though she was preparing to start university, but she wouldn’t have had it any other way. She was amazing throughout, she has been my rock at the times when I really needed it. I joke that I capitalised on the line ‘in sickness and in health’ very early on in our marriage.

There were times where I didn’t even have the energy to text people back, or to finish a sentence, but we were never afraid.

Chemotherapy affects your immune system and makes you more susceptible to illness so seeing people, particularly if they feeling unwell, is not wise because a minor illness could become more serious, so I would make video clips and post them to my Facebook account. I have a lot of friends abroad so the videos helped them stay connected and they were encouraged by my attitude and the way I fought back against the disease.

After my diagnosis some my family became anxious and stressed, some became sick with worry, especially when I lost my hair, but I am thankful for the way they supported me.

I had two chemotherapy treatments before Christmas but I contracted an infection and I had to spend five days in hospital between the 23rd and 28th. It was a pretty awful Christmas but my brother was getting married on the 29th of December and I was desperate to make it. I surprised everyone when I turned up to a meal the night before the wedding in Newcastle, my brother was naturally very happy to see me. It was a very emotional day.

Once the chemo was completed I was told that I had a ‘full metabolic response’ which meant that the cancer was, as good as they can tell, gone. Because of the rarity and severity of my cancer the Lymphoma Team wanted to do one final treatment, the most gruelling yet, an autologous stem cell transplant and chemotherapy.

The treatment took almost a month to complete and may take up to two years to fully recover from, but it went to plan and I was discharged on 12 April, four days before my 25th birthday. I was not well for a few months after and I still feel the effects now, but I was glad to have completed my final round of chemotherapy. When I regained my appetite Shirley and I went for a steak and I was as ecstatic as I could be.

Since then all my follow-ups have returned fantastic results and I am now in remission after completing three weeks of radiotherapy treatment. The care I received always felt very personal, every doctor, and every nurse, the ward managers, all of them knew who you were – it almost felt like an extended family.

Shirley almost lived with me in the hospital. She was there every day, at every appointment, and spent the same number of days in hospital as I did. She never left me.

Due to my age I was cared for by the Teenage Cancer Trust, which was amazing, they assigned us a specialist who contacted me regularly. I was also assigned a social worker under CLIC Sargent which helped me apply for Personal Independence Payments (PIP).

I was given a private room which made everything more bearable and made the hospital feel like home. The personal relationships with the NHS staff made everything more comfortable and you always felt that they were willing to go the extra mile for you.

Their care highlighted to me how important the NHS is. Thank god we have such a good healthcare system."