My father has been a doctor for more than 35 years. Ever since I can remember, he has always been on hand to offer advice and practical help with any medical worries I might have. I don’t ask him for advice very often, mind you, because his demeanour when I do is frequently prickly and often downright grumpy. I can understand that, I suppose: I don’t especially like talking shop when I get home from work, so why should he? When it has really mattered though, he has been there for me. He was there when I was six years old and I broke my arm. When I was twenty-one, he quickly realised that I might have glandular fever and made sure that I had all the right blood tests. When I hurt my back, he made sure that I had access to an orthopaedic surgeon for a consultation. He’s also been a constant, reassuring presence in the background helping me to understand what my neurologists have been saying to me about the WTs.
As Uncle Ben used to say to Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility”, and I suppose this is true to some extent of doctors. In addition to his day job, over the years my dad has also offered his services to various organisations for free: he gives up his time at weekends to cover concerts and major events for the St. John’s Ambulance service, and he used to volunteer to be the on-call doctor with the police for road traffic accidents and the like. He never travels anywhere without his medical kit in his car, including a portable set of defibrillators. His reasoning is that he never knows when he (or more to the point, when someone else) might need them. When he worked in General Practice, he was also the first to volunteer to be on-call over Christmas. He never let the fact that he had a young family of his own stop him thinking about other people, and I just got used to the idea that I wouldn’t get to open my Christmas presents until my dad had been round and seen anyone who needed help.
He’s always been a bit of a hypochondriac himself, mind you. One of the drawbacks of knowing so much is that you are well aware of what every little last twinge might be a symptom of. And he’s a terrible patient.
My dad rang me yesterday. I was driving home from the supermarket at the time, so I told him I would call him back in five minutes. By the time I got home, I was in a bit of a rush to get ready to go out to the cinema, so I put some soup on and started to hang out the washing whilst juggling with my mobile phone. My mum answered, and because my dad was busy doing something with his car out in the garage, we had a couple of minutes of chitchat. I stirred the soup and we talked about when I would be coming down at the weekend and what I was up to, and all that kind of stuff. Nothing in particular. After a couple of minutes, my dad came in and picked up the phone. We exchanged pleasantries, and then in an utterly neutral voice he told me that he had received the results of his recent CT scan and apparently he has a tumour in one of his kidneys. Because he had told me this news in a voice so flat that he might have been reading out a shopping list, it took a couple of seconds for the implications of what he had actually said to sink in. What? A tumour? Well, he’d only had the scan in the first place because of a slightly odd result he had received for a liver-function test he took in December. Did that mean they had caught this early? That they had found it by accident? Well, apparently the tumour is the size of a Satsuma. I thought about this. Satsumas are pretty large, and kidneys are relatively small. That sounded big. My dad continued: he hasn’t spoken to the surgeon yet, but although there is a chance that it might be benign, tumours in the kidney are usually malignant and he will probably have to have surgery. The good news is that there’s a good chance that it hasn’t metastasised, because tumours in the kidney take longer to do that than they do elsewhere in the body. The bad news is that when they do metastasise, these tumours tend to spread to the lungs and to the brain. His voice remained utterly neutral, and this neutrality and calmness governed my own reaction to this news. I was being told this news in such a matter of fact way that I had little choice but to accept it in the same way. My dad is a doctor, he knows better than most people what he is dealing with here and he knows that an emotional response is not going to help anyone. He’s likely to need surgery, and I suppose there must be a good chance that he will have a kidney removed. At least it’s in something you have two of, right?
My dad finished up by telling me that although my younger brother had heard the news, my elder brother was still in Korea and hadn’t heard. I’m hardly likely to be speaking to him in the next couple of days, but the subtext was clearly that I should leave it to my dad to break the news to him. How could I disagree with that? My dad is clearly the person that this news affects the most, but his understanding of what he is facing and a lifetime spent breaking this kind of news to other people has enabled him to remove the emotion and to talk about this in a calm and rational way. The dispassionate way that the news had been broken to me has utterly governed my own reaction. The little voice in the back of my head that is shouting “CANCER! CANCER! CANCER!” has remained just that… a little voice.
It is my dad’s sixtieth birthday next week. I hope there are many more.
Podcast: The West Wing Weekly
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