Older People Living with Cancer

Peer advocates supporting older people affected by cancer

‘Just be with them in the unknown’

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Kathleen Gillett from Cancer, Older People and Advocacy programme partner Dorset Macmillan Advocacy considers the relationship between the older person affected by cancer and their peer advocate:

Steven W. Thrasher writes from the heart in his opinion piece in the Guardian ‘Don’t tell cancer patients what they could be doing to cure themselves’.

He analyses why we have a natural tendency to try to give advice or at the very least to try to ‘say the right thing’ in difficult situations. Then he explains why we should not.

‘Talking at someone with cancer about what they should do, rather than being with them in a morass with no easy answers, is not you helping them’ argues Thrasher.

The relationship of a peer volunteer advocate with the person they are supporting (their ‘advocacy partner’) is not the same as the relationship between relatives or friends.   Relatives and friends may be asked for and may offer their opinions.  Advocates do not offer opinions or advice but they can listen and be present.   They can, as Thrasher writes, ‘Just be with them in the unknown’.

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In Dorset we have been fortunate to attract highly motivated volunteers.  We find during our informal interview that most of them have a fair idea what advocacy is about even if they were unfamiliar with the term itself.  During our induction training we see them gain a much deeper understanding while taking part in the discussions about the ethos of advocacy and examples of advocacy in practice.

To volunteer to be with someone ‘in the unknown’ is not an easy thing to do and it is the volunteers’ ability to empathise that gives them the determination to fulfil this difficult role.  ‘Would you like to make a difference?’ is a familiar term on volunteer recruitment material.  ‘Would you like to be with someone in ‘a morass with no easy answers’?’ is a phrase we would be unlikely to use on our recruitment posters but our volunteers are undoubtedly up to the challenge.

Kathleen Gillett, Dorset Macmillan Advocacy

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