Deborah Bowman MBE, breast cancer patient

I have spent my entire working life in medicine. As a Professor of Medical Ethics at St George’s, University of London, where I do research, teach students and junior doctors and work with clinical teams and patients, I have always believed that patients should have total control in decisions about their treatment. But in 2017, this belief was tested when I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. I quickly learned that no amount of experience can prepare you for adapting to life with cancer.

Throughout my treatment, my responses surprised me. I was both rational and emotional. I both wanted to know and to not know information. I was constant and changeable. Sometimes, I was taken aback by the way the arrival of a Royal Marsden envelope made me feel – like grenades on my door mat.

Things I had written and spoken about for years as abstract ideas suddenly became real and complex. I learned that giving consent could be overwhelming, no matter how brilliantly the staff communicate. I found that no amount of evidence could remove the difficulty of living with uncertainty. I joined a clinical trial and saw the relationship between clinical and research ethics differently. Above all, I appreciated kindness – which was something I encountered a great deal of.

I also work as a broadcaster, making programmes about the moral questions in medicine. I was fortunate to have the chance to make a programme for BBC Radio 4 called Patient Undone about how being a patient has changed me and my practice in clinical ethics. I talked to some of the clinicians whose care made such a difference to me and my thinking. It was broadcast for the first time on 16 April – exactly one year after I had surgery at The Royal Marsden.

My hospital experience was transformative. All of the staff in the team who cared for me – including my clinical nurse specialist, surgeon, consultant oncologist, healthcare assistants, chemotherapy nurses, radiographers, allied health professionals and research nurses – demonstrated to me what ethical care looks and feels like in practice from the other side of the consulting room. I will always be grateful to every one of them.