In the meeting with Current Oncologist after our frenzy of research I told her I had made an appointment to see Professor Hope on Harley Street. On hearing his name her eyebrows sharpened and she adopted a sceptical expression; her immediate concern was that he would charge us a lot of money, and that he would recommend a drug called Avastin which was as yet unproven and whose cost could run into the thousands. She certainly didn’t seem to be a fan.
I asked for her recommendations for second opinions and she gave me a list of names but said I was unfortunate because the following week was the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting and many oncologists based in London would be in Chicago. It felt as though the progress we were determined to make was being frustrated once again.
Current Oncologist went over the list of questions we had raised in our email. She said that she felt we’d gone away on the previous visit with only the ‘headline news’. No shit. She seemed to think we’d simply blocked out the part where we discussed a treatment plan, which certainly didn’t reflect our recollection of events. Putting aside the urge for recriminations we then discussed a tablet form of chemotherapy called Capecitabine. If I were lucky I would tolerate the drug well, with few side-effects. The big bonus would be that I wouldn’t lose my hair.
My brother John had arrived from Australia and would stay for the next eight weeks while we formulated a plan. As John, Tom and I sat in the waiting room in Harley Street there was a stark contrast with the central London hospital I’d been attending. Pristine copies of Vogue and Tatler were scattered on the side tables; no piles of outdated Bellas and Take A Breaks with incomplete crosswords awaited this type of clientele. I kind of missed those articles about how someone’s obese mother-in-law married her one-legged aunt. Of course anyone can get cancer, rich or poor, but you probably won’t be reading the same magazines.
Meeting Professor Hope for the first time, he shook my hand and told us how sorry he was. Despite his lofty position he seemed a genuinely empathetic person. His initial instincts were that Current Oncologist had put us on the right track with Capecitabine, but wanting to learn about all the options we asked about Avastin, the expensive drug Current Oncologist predicted he would try to ‘sell’ us.
He dismissed it immediately. “I’ll only ask this once, do you have enough money to go private?” “Not really,’ I replied. ‘But we could find the money if we need to.”
“In that case let’s not discuss money again. I’ll see you here and I won’t charge. Now, let me think.”
He swivelled round in his chair, scratching his head and picking up the phone only to put it down again. He scrolled down his blackberry then tapped it on the desk. We were either watching a very convincing mad man or a genius at work; when you’re in my situation you’re really hoping it’s the latter. “Let’s see if there’s something a bit more funky out there,” he announced. He picked up his mobile and called a colleague who worked in research, explained my situation and arranged for me to go to a centre where they were doing trials on patients who had hormone sensitive cancers that had relapsed despite chemotherapy.
Professor Hope’s plan would be to start me on Capecitabine and in the meantime he’d arrange a couple of meetings with research centres to see if I could get on any trials as a back-up. If the Cape didn’t work there were alternative options out there.
Before we left we arranged to meet Professor Hope again. ‘I can’t do next week as I’m in Chicago,” he said. “But you’re lucky. The meeting next week will give me chance to discuss your case, get some new ideas.”
That kind-of sums up the difference between Current Consultant and Professor Hope. He saw the positive in a situation, he gave me alternatives, avenues to explore, a plan. Current Consultant had given me a death sentence and sent me away: there’s not a lot you can do with that, aside from give up. But with a course of action, with different options available, you have reason to hope and reason to keep going.
Our mindset changed, the world didn’t look pitch black anymore. When the three of us walked out of that building into the sunshine an enormous weight had been lifted. You can’t bottle that feeling. The future wasn’t written; we could yet play our part.