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Being transgender and navigating cancer

Throughout my twelve weeks as an inpatient, I found myself scared to be open about who I was or ask to be named and gendered correctly. The irony of this is that I work in a transgender empowerment programme. The reason I did not disclose my gender identity was that I was scared of backlash, prejudice and that I would not get the care that I needed

by Cavyn Mitchell (He/They/Ze)

Content note: this piece makes reference to medical procedures and treatment for cancer, misgendering and transphobia, anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, and experience of a meltdown.

When I was first admitted to hospital, all I could think was that they would deadname me and gender me as female. The never-ending blood tests, the first bone marrow biopsy and all the information I was suddenly bombarded with did nothing to dent me, yet the constant need to repeat my birth name for blood transfusions and tests was like a knife cutting into my very existence. Being in a side room due to infection risk, I found some solace that I was at least on a mixed ward, and that I could giggle with the nurses and be a clown. When I was moved to the high dependency ward, things got worse. I was suddenly in a ward with three older women. For someone with neurodiversities, sensitivities to noises and a visual impairment, contending with the noise and disruption alongside the whirring of oxygen machines was a lot to deal with. I was there for a week and I did not sleep. 

Throughout my twelve weeks as an inpatient, I found myself scared to be open about who I was or ask to be named and gendered correctly. The irony of this is that I work in a transgender empowerment programme. The reason I did not disclose my gender identity was that I was scared of backlash, prejudice and that I would not get the care that I needed. I always test the waters with new spaces and people in terms of their LGBT+ allyship or even simply acceptance by mentioning that I have a wife. The response to this news from some was positive, but from many of the nursing staff and my clinical nurse specialist it was scarily negative. When in a position where I was unable to advocate for myself due to being so unwell, and particularly vulnerable I was unable and unwilling to take the risk of outing myself. 

One factor with my particular type of cancer was a need to have ECGs every time I had chemotherapy. Thus at the beginning of the cycle I had five days of ECGs, and blood tests ahead of afternoons filled with chemo. This settled to twice a week after the induction week of each cycle – I found it reassuring to have some sort of routine. The ECGs started off ok, I would go into the Chemo unit and have blood drawn from my PICC line before waiting for the nurse to take my ECG. Due to short staffing, the ECG was never scheduled, simply slotted in which always meant a long wait. 

Two nurses in particular were brilliant at the ECG, not understanding my awkwardness but allowing me to joke around it. Others commented on my body in weird, rude and derogatory ways. It baffles me as to why they decided that whilst I was at my most vulnerable it would be ok to make such comments, the lightest of which was ‘oh I see you don’t go for the leg waxing’. The worst of which included comments about my chesticles which made me want to crawl out of my skin. 

The way that the ECGs were conducted changed halfway through my treatment when a nurse failed to be able to use the ECG machine. The senior nurse in charge, when trying to help, lost his temper with me – sending me spiralling into a full autistic meltdown. As someone who complied with every request, waited patiently at every delayed appointment, and was flexible when healthcare staff were overwhelmed and overworked – this was particularly painful. The result was that I was sent to another unit on the ninth floor of the adjoining hospital for my ECGs, the message clear: I was a difficult patient. 

The most comfortable ECG I had was from a man who managed to do the ECG without lifting my t-shirt, who understood that I was visually impaired, and audio described everything he was about to do. He also asked for consent before starting the procedure. This blew my mind, as I had never been asked for consent before for any part of my treatment; not my hospitalization, the numerous blood tests, ECGs, X-rays, MRIs, or for the painful procedure of the PICC line (chemo port) insertion (something I endured three times due to complications). I was only required to consent to the bone marrow biopsies that came after each cycle of chemo to check whether I was in fact heading in the right direction with my treatment. 

Throughout my treatment and subsequent recovery, I found comfort in my community. Even though I took a step back from work (the kindness that my work showed in giving me space and time was truly amazing), I kept up with news, people and still felt connected. 

Humour was the only tool left at my disposal when undergoing an illness which I would never have dreamt of either having or surviving. Giggling through my treatments, either with others or to myself (something that freaked a lot of people out) helped me through even when I could not imagine ever leaving the hospital ward. 

One particular instance which I found hysterical was when waiting for a porter to take me back to my ward (I wasn’t allowed to wander off – apparently it’s frowned upon to walk even if you can in these situations), I overheard two porters discussing who needed to go where and stating ‘that boy needs to go back to his ward’. It amused me that even without a binder, the baggy t-shirt and long shorts I wore made them describe me as male, in any other situation this would have been a success. However, I knew once they checked my wristband they would apologise profusely and then compensate by overusing the words, ‘she’, ‘her’ and ‘ma’am’ – which is exactly what they did. The fact that I confused them so much was just so funny, and something I needed to revalidate my existence as a queer trans-masc non-binary individual. 

This article was funded by The LGBT+ Futures: Equity Fund in partnership with the The National Lottery Community Fund.