Published on 06 November 2019
Not many people would consider themselves lucky to have been diagnosed with cancer.
But that’s exactly how Lis Blandon feels, after a routine screening check picked up her breast cancer before she could even feel a lump.
The NHS breast screening service at the Kent and Canterbury Hospital, provided by East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, is 30 years old this month and Lis joined staff, dignitaries and other former patients for a reception at the unit to help celebrate.
She said: “I was so lucky they caught it so early. Can you imagine if we didn’t have the screening programme, just how many women would end up dying from cancer?
“How lucky am I to have been born when I was and to have this service available to me?”
The 65-year-old retired civil servant, who lives in Lynsted, near Sittingbourne, underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy after having an operation to remove the lump from her breast.
The treatment was gruelling, and she ended up back in hospital with sepsis after her fourth round of chemo, but she says she never considered herself to be ill.
She said: “Apart from the sepsis, I felt fine. The operation didn’t bother me and the chemo made me feel awful but I knew what that was – it was down to the drugs, not because I was ill.
“I just saw it as something I had to go through, and everyone at the hospital was so encouraging and caring.
“My abiding memory of the treatment is laughter, and I am so thankful I have been able to meet so many wonderful people because of my diagnosis.
“I get very defensive when people criticise the NHS because I have received such fantastic care and I think it’s astonishing how many people have been involved in looking after me, and how brilliant their care has been.”
Lis is still in touch with her breast cancer nurse, Nessy Potter, and credits her with helping her get through the chemotherapy side effects.
She said: “I couldn’t have done it without her. After the first dose of chemo I felt a bit rough, but after the second I was so sick.
“I said to her I didn’t think I could do another four rounds, and she said to just try and do another two so I would have had four in total, as that is what used to be the standard.
“She told me I could always stop it if I felt too bad, and that meant I felt in control again and I knew I could do it.
“I focused on the fact it was just a few months and then it felt much more manageable.”
She also remembers the kindness of the staff who told her she had cancer – Consultant radiologist Dr Sarah Moorhouse and nurse Susan Wilson.
Lis said: “I still remember their names because of their kindness. They went through it all so calmly and positively that I didn’t feel nervous or anxious. I had every confidence in them.”
After finishing chemotherapy, Lis had radiotherapy and then regular checks to make sure the cancer did not return. She has now been signed off as officially cancer-free and is back to being screened every three years.
Lis said: “We talked about moving house after we both retired, but I’m not moving anywhere that isn’t in the catchment area for the Kent and Canterbury Hospital.
“I’ve spoken to friends elsewhere who have had very different experiences and much less support and I know I wouldn’t want to be looked after anywhere else in the future.”
Almost 40,000 women were invited to attend the breast screening unit in the past year – almost double the amount invited in its first year of operation.
A total of 282 women were diagnosed with cancer following their screening appointment in the past year – up from 50 in 1989.
The unit itself has expanded from a small area with two x-ray rooms and one clinical room to a purpose-built, two-storey building housing three x-ray rooms, two ultrasound rooms and two clinical rooms. And technology has moved on, allowing staff to use digital images, ultrasound and 3D mammograms.
The department opened in 1989, a year after the NHS Breast Screening Programme was set up by the Department of Health. The new building was officially re-opened in May 2003 and was named after Professor Stuart Field, who set up the service at Canterbury.
As well as running services at the unit, staff are responsible for the three mobile screening units that visit 18 sites across east Kent.