Claire from Oxfordshire Advocacy describes her recent experiences as a cancer advocate and the value of an advocate having a shared common experience with the person they are supporting.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 and despite lots of treatment – chemotherapy, mastectomy, radiotherapy, reconstructive surgery and targeted drug therapies – I learnt in 2015 that my cancer had spread and I am now living with secondary breast cancer.
Last year, I decided to volunteer as a peer advocate in Oxfordshire because I could see at first hand, as I was going through my treatment, that there were many people who were struggling to find their way through the healthcare system in our area and to access the support they needed. It seemed obvious to me that a person who has been treated for cancer is potentially in a very strong position to support another person going through the same or similar treatment and experience.
Anne (not her real name) was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and was referred to Oxfordshire Advocacy by her specialist breast nurse. Anne lives alone, struggles to get out and had become very isolated & depressed. When I first met her, she talked often about the diagnosis being the “final straw” and I recognised the many of the feelings that I had felt when I was first diagnosed: anger, fear, sadness, even despair.
In the first few weeks when I visited Anne at her home, we often would just talked and shared experiences and I know that she really appreciated that someone had taken the time to sit and listen and talk. I knew that when you are first diagnosed with cancer you do get quite a long appointment slot with your consultant and your specialist nurse, but you are in a state of shock and you can’t really take things in, and you are certainly not able to talk through how you are feeling. You need lots of time to process what is happening to you and it is weeks later when you are ready to really think about what is happening to you.
Since then, I have been able to help Anne in a number of ways. For example, I contacted Breast Cancer Care (I knew how good they were from my own experience) and ordered a number of information leaflets for her – some on treatments she had been advised to have, specific information on lymphedema and some on other issues such as her benefits entitlement. Anne suffers from cataracts as well and so I made sure I ordered the information in large print so that she could read the text.
Anne had a specific issue with one of her drugs that was making her feel unwell – I recognised the issue because I had suffered something similar – so I printed some information from the MacMillan website ( Anne doesn’t have a computer or access to the internet) and took it to her and read it through for her. I also helped her prepare some questions about this for her next GP appointment and as a result she was able to discuss the issue with her doctor and get the drug changed to minimise the side effects.
Most recently I was able to help Anne with her application for a one-off MacMillan support grant – she wanted to use the money to help with her heating oil. She had being finding it difficult to fill in the form and so she dictated to me what she wanted to say in her application and I was able to write it down for her (and I could use my experience to help with the spellings of all the drugs she was taking!). She said that receiving the money was very important to her as it eased her worries about putting the heating on in the winter.
I hope that with these few examples I have managed to convey that working with Anne has also been very rewarding for me. Cancer treatment is often quite technical and complicated and over time you are forced to become quite an expert in the healthcare system & how to get support. I am really glad to be able to put my experience to good use.
Claire, Oxfordshire Advocacy