Catherine Fernando knows exactly how it feels to be a patient given difficult news.
She was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma a year after graduating from Aberdeen University Medical School.
And she says it turned it out to be a “really terrible” year.
Catherine first realised something was wrong when she noticed a gland in her neck was swollen while working in hospital.
“I could just feel it, like when you get tonsillitis and it’s swollen up and it just never went down,” she explains.
“I mentioned it to one of the surgical registrars and he said we should probably just take it out.
“So he did, and they did a biopsy of the gland.
“Then on the Thursday I was sitting with a consultant and being told that I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which was horrendous.”
Catherine was already struggling with the death of her 68-year-old father Graham McCulloch who passed away shortly before she was diagnosed.
“And then my best friend, who was 26, died of inflammatory breast cancer,” Catherine says.
“It was a really terrible year.”
‘I just wanted to be a doctor’
Catherine says the cancer diagnosis she was given while working as a junior doctor in 2002 has had a lasting impression on her life.
Despite her health challenges, she went back to work and underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.
Through sheer determination she managed to pass all her MRCP exams which test the knowledge and skills of doctors in training.
“I was just determined that it wouldn’t stop me,” she explains. “My drive was focused on becoming a consultant in medicine as quickly as I could.
“I just wanted to be a doctor.”
‘I didn’t want to die and leave my children’
Catherine met her future husband on the medical rotation while working at Stirling Royal Infirmary.
And she got the chance to become a mother despite being warned it might not be possible after the cancer.
“It’s very hard when you’ve had cancer to live an entirely normal life because it’s always somewhere in the background,” Catherine says.
“If you feel unwell with something then you often tend to think that it’s something very serious.
“And you’re also quite aware of the long-term complications from cancer. I was told that I might never have children, but I’ve got four children which is great.”
But the GP was also warned there was a “very high chance” she would develop breast cancer.
So she took the matter into her own hands and looked into getting her breasts removed.
“After I’d finished breastfeeding my fourth baby, I decided to get a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction,” she says.
“I didn’t want to die and leave my children.”
She set up her own business and helps girls get access to education
Catherine went on to work as a GP and was also recently inspired to open up her own business.
She was frustrated to find that accessories for doctors were still so masculine despite so many women now working as GPs.
So she visited her local Business Gateway to discuss designing bags for female doctors to hold all their medical equipment.
“My brown, leather bag did not reflect my personality, and my stethoscope was constantly tangled around the other equipment due to a lack of pockets,” she explains
“I was willing to spend a reasonable amount of money on a work case, but I couldn’t find anything I liked.”
Catherine took a year out of her work to focus on her business, named IYASU after the phrase ‘to heal’ in Japanese.
She’s now selling a range of vegan bags with each of them named after an inspirational female medical pioneer from throughout history.
Some of the profits will be donated to the Malala Fund to support young girls from around the world get access to education.
Life after cancer: How has it changed her outlook on life?
Catherine now lives in Haddington with her husband Kevin and their four children and also looks after her mum.
She will be back working at her local health practice in June and says surviving cancer continues to motivate her.
“I guess you make the most of every day because you know how quickly things can suddenly be over,” she says.
“I do tend to be very busy and just try to achieve as much as I possibly can.”