You can’t fight with the fella in the Brite Nitegown

by Rick Johansen

A letter arrives from the NHS, something which always makes me think, I wonder what’s wrong? Are these test results? I don’t think so because I haven’t had any tests in the last few months. My first thought is to look later on. After all, there is so much to do today like, well there must be something really important. Hmm. Deep breath. let’s open it now, this second. What can it be?

It turns out that it’s an invitation to NHS bowel cancer screening. I’ll spare you the specific details of how this works, especially if you are about to launch into elevenses but put simply it’s a notification that I am soon to be sent a stool test which will give an indication of whether I have bowel cancer. I’ve done this before, it’s very simple and it’s A Very Good Thing. However, as you may have gathered from the dithering in the opening paragraph I have in the past found ways to delay carrying out the test. No more.

Some years ago, an acquaintance in our village found that he became exhausted at the bare minimum of effort. There were no specific symptoms indicating anything. Following a GP visit, there followed blood tests which alarmed medics so much he was immediately summoned to hospital. Soon, bowel cancer was diagnosed and the prognosis was bleak. The treatment would be palliative. So it was. It was so cruel.

Last year, bowel cancer got far close to home when one of my closest, dearest friends became very ill. The first I knew of it was when I discovered he had had life-saving surgery for bowel cancer, which was soon found to have spread. Death followed, again so cruelly, so unfairly. With both people, an early diagnosis may have made a difference, saved their lives. Lesson learned? Eventually, yes.

When my very first kit arrived, I found, invented, excuses to delay the test. Pathetic, silly excuses, like I was going on holiday soon. What’s a few weeks? I can’t remember exactly how long I delayed things but when my fellow villager told me his story I was deeply shocked and upset. I looked upon him as indestructible, a big bear of a man in far better physical shape than me. He was going to die and he told me as much. My shock and upset was for me too. He had been too young for the NHS bowel cancer scheme, I was old enough but had not got round to it. No, that’s not quite true. I had deliberately avoided taking the test.

Off the test went via the Royal Mail – and yes, I did wash my hands thoroughly before sending the envelope off – and I waited for the results. I can’t deny that the ensuing days weren’t stress-free. I had never before been invited to take the test. I had no symptoms but then neither did the guy in our village. It could be too late.

An envelope arrived from the NHS.  This had to be it. Strangely calm, I opened the envelope. And there were the magic words, the precise ones I don’t remember to be honest, but they were along the lines of “On the basis of this test, you haven’t got bowel cancer“. I was both relieved and privately embarrassed at my own stupidity in delaying the test. This would not happen again.

The last time the test kit arrived, I did the necessary and posted the sample within the hour. Now, I knew that if I did have bowel cancer there was the possibility it might be caught earlier and might not kill me. No guarantees and all that but my chances of living a bit longer were better than they might otherwise be. This one was negative, too. And now, after a very brief lapse into my old ways, I await the arrival of my next bowel cancer test kit. And when it comes, there will be not a moment’s delay.

This is the NHS at its very best, screening at an early age for a cancer that has a chance of being treated if it’s detected. Many of us are hypochondriac to some degree or other, but if it gets to a point that one is actually avoiding tests, we’re just making that hypochondria worse. Because, as the great songsmith Donald Fagen put it, “You can’t fight with the fella in the Brite Nitegown.”

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